Going the extra mile: researchers study which plants will be next fuels
Date of publication : 2/14/2008
Source : Rockford Register Star/GateHouse Media
With corn and soybeans now being tapped for fuel as well as food, increasing concerns about the best use of these plants has turned into a food-versus-fuel debate.
That’s where the new crops division at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research facility in Peoria comes in.
While not taking sides in the debate, Terry Isbell, research head of the Ag Lab’s new crops division, is pushing for change. "I want to see more diversity on the farm. We want to look at other crops," he said.
There are plenty of new-crop candidates auditioning for stardom, said Isbell, citing national research on plants such as camelina, cuphea, lesquerella, switchgrass and milkweed, all offering different benefits suitable for specific climates.
"Whoever finishes first with the highest yield will be the winner," he said.
One contender getting a closer look is field pennycress, a member of the mustard family that hasn’t exactly won accolades from the farming community that once dubbed it "stinkweed."
But this weed comes with some big benefits, Isbell said. "The mustard plant is 36 percent oil, double the amount found in soybeans," he said.
That oil could go into fuel such as biodiesel or serve as a substitute for petroleum-based plastics. Another possible benefit is that pennycress could be planted in the fall and harvested in late spring, allowing a farmer to "double crop," he said.
"We have to learn how to fit (pennycress) in with the kings of the Midwest, corn and soybeans," said Isbell, indicating researchers are looking at how pennycress could fit in with Illinois planting seasons of the primary commodity crops. A pennycress crop harvested in late May would allow for a full growing season for soybeans, he said.
Another advantage for the farmer planting pennycress is that as a winter ground cover, it would help stem soil erosion plus require little to no fertilizer or herbicide to spur growth.
But much research is required before pennycress starts sprouting across the land, he said. "We still have questions on fertility, weed-pressure issues and developing hybrids," said Isbell, who, along with other Ag Lab researchers, paid a visit in January to a test field in Peoria County, owned by rancher Chip Unsicker.
While most fields sit idle over the winter, pennycress showed signs of growth on the frozen test field. "We don’t believe pennycress is dormant at all," said Isbell, inspecting individual plants with fellow Ag Lab researcher Steven Vaughn, a plant physiologist.
"They’ve definitely grown since the last time we were here (in December)," said Vaughn, who photographed different patches. "There’s definitely good density of pennycress. I’m also noticing some frost damage," he said.
Once the weather warms up, pennycress growth will accelerate, Isbell said. "In March, the pennycress will take off. (Plants) will be two feet tall by April," he said.
Whether it’s pennycress or another contender, Isbell looks for new crops to eventually make their mark. "Double-cropping will be the way of the future. It’s inevitable. Our energy needs dictate it," he said.
Along with making better use of first-rate farmland so prevalent in central Illinois, Isbell sees other advantages to Ag Lab research. "We have to tackle marginal lands that see no production at present," he said.
"We’re also looking at plants that are native to certain areas of the country. Maybe we can develop a crop every two years when before there’s been no crop at all," said Isbell, referring to other land such as that used for grazing cattle in Nebraska and Wyoming.
Pennycress, if developed successfully, could provide a source for fuel without affecting food needs, he said. Yet research on these alternative crops is relatively new, Isbell said. He noted that research continues on corn and soybeans even though the crops have been grown commercially for 100 years.
"We’ve been looking at new crops for 16 years, but only in the past two years has anyone been intensely interested. The petroleum crunch has provided that impetus," he said.
Would you like to discuss about this topic: Going the extra mile: researchers study which plants will be next fuels?