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Researchers Seek New Strains for Biofuels

Aug. 21, 2012 - 04:49PM   |  
By ADAM STONE   |   Comments
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With the U.S. Navy spending an increasing amount of cash on alternative energy — including biofuels — researchers at South Dakota State University have embarked on a project that could generate a new strain of plant-based fuels.

“We want to know, can we grow it well? Can we grow it efficiently?” said Daniel Scholl, director of the university extension’s Agricultural Experiment Station, which operates six field stations covering 17,000 acres.

Scholl’s team is experimenting with such little-known oilseed crops as crambe and brassica carinata, or Ethiopian mustard.

These crops could find favor with the Navy, which has said it would like to avoid competing with such food crops as canola and soybean oil. Cranbe, for instance, is grown in some places for birdseed.

These oilseed plants could have other advantages, Scholl said. Ethiopian mustard, for one, is highly resistant to heat and drought.

The project has received $500,000 a year for three years in funding from the state of South Dakota. While that funding will go toward the development of test crops, the project likely will seek partners in private industry as well. Researchers will need help in developing the infrastructure to process seeds and breed the plants on a larger scale.

Researchers are especially interested in developing “drop-in” fuels — energy sources that can be blended with conventional fuels and used in engines that don’t need to be retrofitted. The Navy has made drop-in capability a priority in its efforts to move toward a greener fleet.

The service has taken an active interest in the project. Scholl met recently with Chris Tindal, director of operational energy for the Navy, who has visited South Dakota State University in the past.

It will take at least a three-year cycle of plantings to determine whether the test crops can be grown and harvested efficiently enough to justify large-scale production.

Even if researchers can develop crops that can be easily dropped in, they still will have to overcome economic hurdles to bring their seeds into production. Specifically, they’ll need to demonstrate to farmers that the new crops are financially feasible.

“From the perspective of the agricultural producers, the growers in South Dakota, they want to know: What are the estimated times to plant these crops?” Scholl said. “What other food crops can I rotate in with them? What’s the impact of an oilseed crop on my wheat crops? When do I harvest? What alterations do I need to make in my equipment?”

Other efforts to develop oilseed crops are underway, though with mixed results. The Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, for example, introduced drought-tolerant camelina in 2004. While the plant saw some uptake among farmers, strong wheat prices have lately discouraged growers from the crop.

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