Bioenergy is a key word these days, and it could be the solution to some serious issues facing our region and our entire country. Bioenergy can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve our energy future by utilizing renewable energy sources, reduce our dependence on imported fossil fuels, and help to improve our rural economies by promoting the use of agricultural or forest-based products.

While Illinois has been a leader in renewable fuels technology and production with corn ethanol and soy biodiesel, the food vs. fuel argument needs to be further addressed if we hope to meet the future energy needs of this nation. Fortunately, this region is already working to help solve that issue.

The USDA National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) began work on a winter weed known as pennycress in 2003. Preliminary work found that pennycress seeds contain 36 percent oil, making it suitable for production of biodiesel. Laboratory testing has shown the viability of the idea. The USDA tested field plots in the region that proved pennycress could be planted and harvested using current commercial farming equipment. Pilot work on processing pennycress seeds to produce biodiesel has met proper standards, proving that commercial production of biodiesel is feasible.

Biofuels Manufacturers of Illinois (BMI) plans to develop, own and operate a 45 million gallon biodiesel production facility in Mapleton within the next two years that would use the oil from pennycress to develop a cost-effective and sustainable feedstock. This would be the only biodiesel plant within a 100-mile radius of central Illinois.

Peoria NEXT is proposing to lead a collaborative Sustainable Energy Project to develop this new energy crop and innovative processing technologies for next-generation biofuels by demonstrating an integrated biorefinery concept using pennycress.

Many next-generation biofuels have technology hurdles to overcome before they become commercially viable. These can be divided into two challenges: economical feedstock production and efficient methods to extract the energy. The partnership created by Peoria NEXT will address both of these challenges to bring advanced, next-generation biofuels to market.

To overcome the feedstock supply issue, Peoria NEXT will work with Arvens Technology Inc. (ATI), to continue introducing pennycress as a new bioenergy crop. While pennycress is a remarkable source for next-generation biofuels, it must be established as a new crop within a traditional two-crop farming culture of rotating only corn and soybeans.

A major benefit of pennycress is that one ton of seeds (one acre) can yield 95 gallons of oil and an additional 95 gallons of bio-oil from the remaining de-oiled presscake. Because the crop requires so few inputs and has such a high-energy content, the net energy yield of pennycress is greater than 10 to one. While this is impressive, the Peoria NEXT Sustainable Energy Program can increase both the energy and economic efficiencies of this remarkable bioenergy source.

Current oil extraction technologies require significant energy inputs for mechanical crushing and heat to recover chemical solvents used in the process. The Peoria NEXT Sustainable Energy Project will combine the innovations of three companies to create an energy-efficient and environmentally sound process to yield oil that can be converted into biodiesel using a variety of feedstocks.

The Peoria NEXT biorefinery strategy is to leverage the technology developments of EcoThermics Corporation and Cool Clean Technology Inc. to develop a CO2-based extraction process that has been shown at the lab scale to remove essentially all of the oil from a variety of feedstocks, including pennycress, at a lower cost and in a more environmentally friendly manner than conventional processes.

The project proposes to develop these integrated technologies into a highly efficient biorefinery system and demonstrate the extraction technology at the half-ton-per-day scale to prove the process and demonstrate the energy savings and economics of the technology. Arvens Technology will create bio-oil from the remaining presscake by pyrolysis utilizing its proprietary technology. This bio-oil and the extracted seed oil can be processed into green aviation fuel and biodiesel.

The results of this project will be beneficial to the national energy efforts and the living-wage jobs created from the new technology and energy production operations. For example, a single 50 million gallon biofuel facility will inject $100 million per year of new money into the local farming community for the purchase of the pennycress seeds.

Construction of one plant creates 150 skilled trade jobs for one year. The operating plant will employ 30 skilled technicians and create 200 indirect jobs in logistics and related services. The oil extraction and pyrolysis plants have similar numbers associated with construction and operation. Illinois has the agricultural land capacity to construct and operate 18 such integrated biorefineries. Based on the projected growing area for pennycress across the Midwest, approximately 100 similar operations can be supported and create over 23,000 new jobs in total. iBi