Pennycress biodiesel projects move forward

By Erin Voegele | December 20, 2010
Posted Dec. 23, 2010

Alberta, Canada may soon be home to a pennycress-to-biodiesel plant. A project initiated by All Peace Industries and its owner, farmer Stan Peacock, is seeking to relocate an existing 17.5 MMgy biodiesel plant from Warren, Mich., to a location in the High Prairie region of northwestern Alberta.

The idle facility is currently owned by The Power Alternative Inc. According to TPA President Jim Padilla Jr., the pennycress project began when Peacock began investigating the use of the plant as a biodiesel feedstock.

A biodiesel research project recently undertaken by Alberta Environment and a local university inadvertently included some pennycress oil in a batch of biodiesel. According to Padilla, pennycress grows as a weed in Alberta. Some of the plant's seeds were picked up during the canola harvest and were included in oil used as biodiesel feedstock in the research. The resulting fuel showed superior cold flow capabilities, and spurred local interest in cultivation of the crop as a biodiesel feedstock.

The High Prairie region has also been experiencing a drought in recent years, which has reduced the yields of locally planted canola crops. Since pennycress can be grown on marginal croplands, it may offer local farmers an alternative to canola cultivation.

While the Alberta project is still pursuing financing opportunities, Padilla estimates the plant could be up and running within six to nine months. That timeframe is based on TPA's initial experience installing the plant in Michigan. "We started installing in January of 2008, were making spec fuel in April 2008, got our permitting completed in June 2008, and started selling in July," he said. Using that timeline as a basis, Padilla projects the Alberta plant could be complete during the third or fourth quarter of 2011.

TPA will serve as a partner for the project. "We're already in partnership with All Peace as far as developing the pennycress feed and the potential for it," Padilla said.

TPA is also actively pursuing a pennycress-to-biodiesel project in Michigan. "We've been working with a nonprofit called to develop pennycress as a potential urban farm crop," Padilla continued.

According to Padilla, research conducted by both Michigan State University and the University of Detroit Mercy has studied the viability of roadside cropping and urban farming of pennycress. One interesting finding so far has been that pennycress shows potential as a remediating crop to help remove heavy metals from contaminated soil, Padilla said.

"We already have crops planted, but it's on the scale of only a few acres," Padilla continued. "We are planning to put more acreage in this spring…and gradually over the next few years grow that up to substantial levels." If the project goes as planned, TPA will bring 1 MMgy to 2 MMgy gallons of biodiesel capacity online to produce fuel. Padilla estimates that urban pennycress farming could supply 30 to 50 percent of the facility's feedstock needs, maybe more if research shows it is possible to complete multiple harvests each year.
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