Field pennycress key as energy source

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PEORIA, Ill. — Field pennycress may go from weed to “wonderfuel,” thanks to studies by Agricultural Research Service scientists in Peoria, Ill.

There, a team of ARS scientists led by Terry Isbell, has been researching the annual winter weed’s potential to yield a bumper crop of oil-rich seed for use in making biodiesel and other products, including an organic fertilizer and natural fumigant.

A second look

Historically, pennycress has been a bane to farmers. But now, with America’s quest for “homegrown” alternatives to petroleum, the plant is getting a second look.

In July, Peoria-based Biofuels Manufacturers of Illinois entered into a two-year cooperative research and development agreement with ARS to conduct laboratory and field trials aimed at teasing out pennycress’s production characteristics as both a cultivated crop and biodiesel feedstock.

Early numbers

Earlier investigations by Isbell and colleagues in the ARS New Crops and Processing Technology Research Unit at Peoria indicate a single acre of field pennycress can yield 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of seed, potentially translating to 75 to 100 gallons of biodiesel.

Under the agreement with BMI, the researchers will manage a winter crop of about 10 acres of field pennycress, which will be harvested in late spring followed by plantings of soybean crops and, for the 2010 season, corn.

The process

Once the oil is extracted from the seeds, a chemical reaction called transesterification will be used to produce biodiesel and glycerin, a byproduct that can be used in soaps, lotions and other products.

The researchers also will examine the chemical constituents of leftover seed meal, especially the isothiocyanates, whose breakdown biologically fumigates the soil, killing certain pests there.

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