Powered by a Plant: Pennycress Offers Potential For Renewable Diesel

What if the next time you boarded a plane, your flight was powered by a flower? This is the second of two articles on field pennycress (Thlapsi arvense). The last one focused primarily on the development of pennycress as both a cover and oilseed crop which could be grown in winter and early spring when fields are otherwise fallow. This one will look at the process of using it for renewable diesel as well as its potential as a clean energy.

Steve Csonka, the director of Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, said that the aviation industry has been working on developing sustainable fuels and oil seeds are one type of solution. He wished to differentiate between biodiesel and renewable diesel stating that both are produced from biomass, including oil seeds, but renewable diesel goes through a different process.

Csonka and Winthrop Phippen, professor of plant breeding and genetics and Western Illinois University, both said that field pennycress is a viable alternative to petroleum. As was stated in the previous article, field pennycress, which is one of several pennycress varieties, is a small white flower. It grows in late winter to early spring and produces approximately 14 seeds which are 25-35% oil. The organization IPREFERCAP (Pennycress Research Enabling Farm and Energy Resilience Project) which also does research on pennycress stated that it can produce as much oil as soybeans. In spite of this, Csonka said a couple billion gallons of oil from pennycress was not the only solution and the aviation industry was looking at other options. As was also previously stated, field pennycress is in the mustard (Brassicae) family, and Csonka said other species in this family could also be used. Phippen mentioned Ethiopian mustard, which can be grown in the Southeast, as well as Camelina satvia also had potential as oilseed crops. While renewable fuel for jets is important, other vehicles are more common forms of transportation and Csonka said that renewable diesel can also be used to for cars, buses, and trains.

Csonka explained that different types of fuels are determined by different lengths of hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are organic compounds containing, as their name suggests, only hydrogen and carbon and often occurring in petroleum, natural gas, and coal. Diesel is made up of 12 hydrocarbons and above and gasoline is 8 and below. Currently renewable diesel is blended with petroleum up to 50% and Csonka said it would probably be a year to a year and a half before a process with no blending was approved, but he said the industry was “moving in that direction.”

At one point, that little plant may not have seemed like much. Though it will not be the only solution, it has the potential to be one of them. While it is necessary to be mindful of our energy usage, innovation and testing new ideas can go a long way to meeting many of the challenges we face. One day, it may be possible to ride a plane or drive car powered by a flower.

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