By TIM ALEXANDER
PEORIA, Ill. — Terry Isbell is looking forward to becoming further acquainted with the Brassica family of oilseed crops during the next four years.
A chemist for the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) “Ag Lab” in Peoria – properly known as the National Center for Agricultural Utilization & Research (NCAUR) – Isbell is lead scientist for a new, $7 million bio-oils research and utilization project funded through a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy and the USDA.
The research is part of the Obama administration’s $41 million investment in 13 projects designed to enhance U.S. energy security, reduce reliance on imported oil and leverage domestic energy supply. U.S. consumers, farmers and rural communities stand to benefit from the four-year project, which will use USDA research labs, universities, private companies and crop fields to optimize Brassica species such as rapeseed/canola, mustard and camelina for seed oil quality and yield.
The goal is to develop the oils for hydrotreatment to produce renewable diesel and jet fuel.
“It’s a huge grant,” said Isbell, who, aside from serving as manager, is one of 25 principal investigators for the project. “The funds actually just arrived. We are in the first stage of the project, which is simply to get everything up and running. We’ve got planting to do, and stress trials will be ongoing.”
Stress trials will involve the evaluation of oilseed plants grown at several locations across the United States’ Western “Wheat Belt,” including the inland Pacific Northwest, the southern Great Plains Prairie Gateway and the Northern Great Plains. Around 200 oilseed varieties will be grown for testing.
“They’ll be scored against drought tolerance, cold tolerance, oil content and other parameters. We’re looking for the best performances in each growing region,” said Isbell.
“The better candidates from the stress trials will be used to produce seed to be crushed and evaluated chemically here in Peoria.”
Some genetic trials will be conducted at the U.S. Arid-Land Agricultural Research Center in Maricopa, Ariz., a prime location for identifying rapeseed/wheat rotation systems that won’t disrupt food crop production. Other research sites include California, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas.
After NCAUR researchers extract the bio-oil from the plants, the ARS team will divide the oil into one-gallon batches to assess the most favorable genetic lines for renewable jet fuel production. “That iteration will continue two more times through years three and four,” Isbell said.
An economic analysis, sociological evaluation and lifecycle analysis are additional facets of the comprehensive project. A final component will entail a study of infrastructure requirements necessary to commercialize harvested oilseed crops for biofuel production.
What production amounts will be required, how much storage capacity will be needed and how seeds will be transported to processors are questions that will be answered as part of this segment of the study, which will be funded by the Navy Office of Naval Research.
All of the project’s findings will be accessible to the public online via the National Agriculture Library and will be published in scientific journals, according to Isbell. Though the study is slated to last four years, he indicated a possible fifth year would mean the project has found solid footing. “At the conclusion, obviously you would expect to be moving to a commercial scale. A fifth year would be a commercial production year. Ideally you pave a path to begin commercialization and then provide seed, resources and the information necessary so that the material can be commercialized, or utilized,” he said.
The toughest part of the project may lay in convincing farmers and ranchers they will turn a profit by switching to a Brassica-wheat rotation.
Surveys will be mailed to farmers in targeted growing regions to gauge their interest and enthusiasm, as part of the project’s sociological analysis.
The project is under the umbrella of “FARM to FLY,” a partnership among USDA, Airlines for America, Inc. and the Boeing Co., formed to advance the development and production of aviation biofuel. In 2011, U.S. airlines consumed nearly 19 billion gallons of fuel, according to information provided by the ARS.