Friday, April 2, 2010

Crop Innovation, Energy Independence

For the first time ever, the U.S. Air Force has flown one of its jets powered entirely by a biofuel blend. The flight took place at Eglin Air Force Base in Flordia with an A-10 Thunderbolt II — an aircraft affectionately known as a Warthog — burning a combination of a fuel derived from camelina oil with conventional JP-8 jet fuel.

New Cash Crop Shows Promise for Western Farmers
Bozeman--With a tight economy, and razor thin profit margins, western farmers are looking for new ways to make money. They have to look no further than the skies. The U.S. Air Force just announced the successful flight of an A-10 Thunderbolt using a biofuel blend of camelina, an oilseed crop mixed with conventional jet fuel. The Air Force plans to test the blend on additional aircraft over the next couple of years.

The Pentagon is looking for ways to become more energy independent and is looking at energy alternatives. Under the Air Force’s current energy plan, the goal is to acquire 50 percent of the domestic aviation fuel from an alternative blend by 2016.

“Our goal is to reduce demand, increase supply and change the culture and mindset of our fuel consumption,” said Terry Yonkers, Undersecretary of the Air Force.

The Air Force is the largest government user of jet fuel consuming 2.4 billion gallons of jet fuel per year. The A-10 test flight went well with “no problems whatsoever” according to the pilot.

Botanists classify camelina as a weed but farmers have cultivated it as an oilseed crop for centuries. Biofuel companies are promoting the crop as the next big thing in biofuel and have supplied the Air Force and Airlines for test runs.

The biofuel companies may soon have company; Shell Oil Company wants to test the oilseed and position itself in the lucrative jet fuel business. Shell researchers see the weed as a promising, renewable biofuel capable of boosting corporate profits.

Why is this crop so attractive to western farmers? Camelina is an oilseed crop that’s demonstrated better drought tolerance and greater freezing tolerance than canola. It’s perfect for dry western states not to mention the fact that camelina is resistant to flea beetles, a major economic pest of canola and it’s also an excellent choice for grain crop rotation.

Alice Pilgeram, Research Professor at Montana State University says that her research on oil seed crops showed it to be the best oilseed fuel source out there and could truly win the tag: cash crop.

“Hands down, Camelina produced better than the other oil seed crops. The driving force behind commercial production is bio-diesel industry. The bio-diesel industry is in a world of hurt because they need to produce cost competitive fuel," said Pilgeram. "What I like about Camelina is that this is an oil seed and once you crush the oil out of it, what you have left is Camelina meal. Camelina meal is equivalent to corn meal. The meal is 42% protein, it contains about 10% oil, it’s probably one of the richest sources of Omega 3 that we have.”

Pilgeram adds that the meal is an excellent alternative to corn for all livestock and great for chicken feed because eggs are enriched with Omega 3. The FDA also recently approved Camelina meal as a component of livestock feed rations, and tests have shown measurable increases in Omega-3 meat and dairy content.

The Institute for Biobased Products, part of Montana State University in Bozeman,is studying the new biodiesel feedstock that’s cheaper to harvest and cuts down on farmer input costs, according to researcher Duane Johnson. Johnson told Biodiesel Magazine about camelina, similar to the mustard plant and commonly grown in northern Europe. The institute began researching camelina's potential as a biodiesel feedstock while trying to figure out how to lower the cost of producing the renewable fuel.

In its third year of research, Johnson has some impressive numbers to present. He estimated the cost to make biodiesel from common feedstocks such as canola, mustard, sunflower and safflower is currently $2.35 to $2.65 per gallon, meaning it would retail at approximately $3 per gallon. Using camelina, Johnson said biodiesel would cost $1 to $1.25 per gallon.
"About 75 percent of biodiesel production cost was in farm-grown raw materials," Johnson said. "We started looking at camelina as a crop cheaper to grow and it’s looking very good in terms of being a low-cost replacement." A market research and advisory firm is predicting that camelina will be the feedstock for a billion gallons of biofuels a year by the year 2025.

There are high hopes for the new cash crop, in a report just released called “Camelina Aviation Biofuels Market Opportunity and Renewable Energy Strategy Report,” researchers say the non-food energy crop will produce biofuels for the aviation and biodiesel sectors that could accounting for 25,000 new jobs, more than $5.5 billion in new revenues and $3.5 billion in new agricultural income for U.S. and Canadian farmers in the next decade.

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