Pennycress energy crop developments show real progress

By Luke Geiver | March 15, 2011

As a dedicated energy crop, some might describe field pennycress as that old, clichéd saying, “too good to be true,” but companies such as Arvens Technology and Alion Science and Technology assert they have proof to show that such a nontraditional crop, planted during harvest time and harvested during the planting season, can provide real benefits.

During the 2011 International Biomass Conference & Expo, May 2-5 in St. Louis, the two companies will explain exactly why underutilized crops such as field pennycress can provide a tried and true advantage to farmers and alternative fuel producers. Peter Johnsen, CTO for Arvens, and Eric Hixson of Alion Science and Technology, spoke with Biorefining Magazine on the topic in advance of the conference.

The main difficulty faced today by Arvens Technology, a startup company working to commercialize field pennycress use in the Illinois area, is working against that old saying. “As we talk to farmers,” Johnsen said, “the farmers have to validate the information that we’ve been able to get about how the crop works, the growing season and the yields.” Johnsen said ultimately the issue is communication. “Not many people think about planting into standing corn in the fall and harvesting it in the spring in time to double crop soybeans,” he said. “It’s kind of a new way of looking at it.”

Johnsen said the USDA Agricultural Research Service initiated testing of the crop and eventually began collaborating with universities on the work. Now, Johnsen’s company is the commercial partner in those efforts, including all of the contracting with farmers, the marketing of the crop and even the processing, working to make the energy crop a reality. “We have contract acres in the ground this year and have begun the process for contracting next fall,” Johnsen said.

Arvens Technology uses an aerial seeding strategy that, for the fall of 2011, Johnsen said will take place between Sept. 10 and Sept. 15. Weather is not an issue because the plane, which plants 16 acres in a minute, “gets the seed down fast.” That, he said, allows the crop to be planted quickly and ready for harvest by late April or the first week of May.

Hixson is also a proponent of field pennycress development. He noted that seed yields have already been demonstrated at 2,000 lb/acre with oil content of 36 percent. “Because pennycress will take advantage of existing farming infrastructure and readily provide additional revenue to farmers, it can more quickly achieve commercial production status than many biomass sources,” Hixson said.

While Johnsen and his team from Illinois would agree, there are limitations, however. Arvens Technology only offers service within a close geographic region, basically serving Illinois and the surrounding area. Other states, like Iowa, will have to wait, Johnsen said. The company is already talking to other groups about setting up “nodes” where it could begin forming new contracts and processing facilities.

For those farmers that choose to plant pennycress, both Hixson and Johnsen said there are only a few issues to consider. “One of the great advantages of pennycress is that it can use existing farming infrastructure and equipment, so that specialized resources generally are not required,” Hixson said. “At most, farmers may have to insure seams in bins used to hold the harvested product will be able to accommodate the small seed.” Johnsen added that they use regular grain heads to harvest the seeds, and the seeds coming out of the combine are very clean.

Arvens Technology’s goal is to net farmers roughly $100 per acre with yields reaching between 2,500 and 3,500 lbs/acre. For those interested in pennycress, Alion has also performed a study that shows “how elements can be added to systems in phases to minimize initial investments and improve near-term economics, and later increasing investments and returns in a step-wise approach,” Hixson said, all of which will be fully explained during the panel titled, Right Under Our Noses: Overlooked Energy Feedstocks of Opportunity, at the 2011 International Biomass Conference & Expo.

Along with Johnsen and Hixson’s reports on pennycress, Dallas Hinks from Utah State University will discuss the use of nontraditional land for biofuel feedstock production, and Chas Taylor from The Earth Partners will touch on land restoration promotion through the harvesting of invasive woody species. To learn more about the 2011 International Biomass Conference & Expo to be held in St. Louis, May 2-5, click here


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