Pennycress Biodiesel: Good for America?

Interest in the oily, grow-anywhere weed drives development
By Kenneth C. Reed | April 21, 2011

President Eisenhower once said, “I have only one yardstick by which I test every problem, and that yardstick is: Is it good for America?” Civil unrest in the Middle East, natural disasters, nuclear explosions in Japan, and our nation's insatiable appetite for foreign crude oil, all pose a threat to America’s national energy and security position. America must reduce dependence upon foreign oil, increase energy security, enhance national security, protect and preserve our natural resources for future generations. One way to do this is to produce clean, liquid alternative fuels from domestic agricultural resources. Field pennycress (Thlaspi arvense L.) presents one viable alternative.


I was introduced to pennycress by Lance Stokes and James Padilla Jr. of The Power Alternative, a biodiesel production facility located near Detroit. TPA is currently evaluating pennycress as an energy crop. Field pennycress is a nonedible, winter annual weed, widely distributed throughout every state in America except Hawaii. A native of Eurasia, pennycress was brought to America in 1701 and has adapted to a wide variety of climates.i  It is a member of the Brassicaceae family and is also known as Frenchweed, stinkweed or fanweed. Pennycress is a close relative of canola (rapeseed), camelina and other mustard plants. It grows naturally in highway medians, on roadsides, in railroad beds, in open grasslands and on marginal, fallow lands, thus completely circumventing the food versus fuel debate. It requires minimal water and no fertilizer or pesticides to grow. Because pennycress is a winter plant harvested in early spring, it could easily share the same crop fields with soybeans or corn.


Pennycress typically grows between four and 24 inches in height with circular seed pods. This plant can live up to 30 years and produce as much as 15,000 seeds per plant with seed oil content between 20 and 36 percent. Terry Isbell, an Agricultural Research Service research scientist in Peoria, Ill., said pennycress can produce 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of seed per acre, and yield an estimated 75 to 100 gallons of biodiesel per acre. Production of biodiesel from pennycress oil was first evaluated by the National Center for Agricultural Research Service in 2009.ii  Since then, other farmers, biodiesel producers such as the TPA group and universities have teamed up to evaluate the benefits of pennycress as a biodiesel feedstock. Based upon the findings to date, field pennycress has earned respect as an acceptable feedstock for biodiesel production. The question remains, however: Is this good for America?


Pennycress offers a low-cost, high oil content, low agricultural, nonresource competitive and nonedible alternative feedstock, compatible with existing farm equipment and infrastructure. Planted in the off-season from soybeans and corn, pennycress presents a good cycle rotation alternative crop for farmers looking to supplement their income. Further, field pennycress provides a high-quality biodiesel product that can be blended with petroleum-based diesel as a displacement fuel. It can also be blended with biodiesel from other feedstock as a strategy to enhance the composition and physical properties of lower quality biodiesel. Biodiesel from pennycress meets or exceeds generally accepted fuel standards imposed by ASTM D6751iii  in the United States and the Committee for Standardization EN 14214 in Europe.iv  


The development of pennycress as an alternative fuel will enable America to import less foreign oil. The U.S. imported 51 percent of its petroleum products in 2009.v  Approximately 17 percent of this amount came from countries in the Middle East, some of which are hostile toward America. The U.S. has paid hundreds of millions of dollars per year to these countries for decades for their crude oil. Some of this money has undoubtedly helped support principles and actions that are contrary to the interests of America and its allies. 


Field pennycress biodiesel is good for America because it will help overcome some restraints that have challenged the growth of the industry. The high cost of soybean and vegetable oils has been a significant barrier to the advancement of the biodiesel industry.vi  Presently, feedstock acquisition accounts for as much as 80 percent of the production costs of biodiesel. Availability of feedstock also presents challenges depending upon geography and climate. Pennycress grows anywhere and everywhere, with minimal agricultural inputs. Moreover, pennycress biodiesel is better-suited than soy oil-based biodiesel for cold weather climates. 


Finally, pennycress offers several additional value-added benefits. Studies by the USDA Agricultural Research Service have found that field pennycress seedmeal offers excellent potential as a fertilizer and biofumigant for high-value horticultural crops for both conventional and organic growers.vii Further studies have shown that pennycress is a viable alternative for cleaning contaminated soil and water through a technique known as phytoremediation. Phytoremediation is a general term for several ways that plants are used to remediate sites by removing heavy metals and other pollutants from soil and water. This direct use of pennycress presents a tremendous opportunity for municipalities to clean up contaminated lands and restore vacant properties to the tax rolls at a huge cost savings over traditional mechanical cleanup methods. Is pennycress, and biodiesel from pennycress, good for America? You decide.

i Vaughn, S.F.; Isbell, T. A.; Weisleder, D.; Berhw, M. A. J. Chem. Ecol.  2005, 31, 167-177. 

ii Moser, B. R.; Knothe, G; Vaughn, S.F. and Isbell, T. A., [http://pubs.acs.org.  published (Web) July 2, 2009, American Chemical Society.

iii American Society for Testing and Materials.  Standard specification for biodiesel fuel blend stock (B100) for middle distillate fuels, ASTM D6751-08.  In ASTM Book of Standards; American Society for Testing and Materials:  West Conshohocken, PA.  2008.
   
iv European Committee for Standardization (CEN), Automotive fuels-Fatty acid methyl esters (FAME) for diesel engines-Requirement methods, EN 14214:2003; European Committee for Standardization (CEN): Brussels, Belgium, 2003.

v U.S. Energy Information Administration; http://www.eia.doe.gov/energy_in_brief/foreign_oildependence.cfm. Accessed 3/19/11.

vi Retka-Schill, S. Biodiesel Magazine 2008, 5, 64-70.

vii Vaughn, S. F., Isbell, T. A., Weisleder, D., Berhow, M. A.  2005.  Biofumigant compounds released by fieldpennycress (Thlaspi arvense) seedmeal.  Journal of Chemical
Ecology.  31: 167-177. 

Author: Kenneth C.  Reed
Founder, CEO, Natural Alternative Fuels
(248) 460-3233
kcreedtriumph@yahoo.com

 
 
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