Pennycress, french weed, fanweed: by any name, a biofuel rose

November 24, 2010 |

We haven’t heard of anyone making biofuels out of chickens, or eggs, but we hear a lot about the chicken-and-egg problem.

“How do get growers to grow if there’s no market? How do you get a market if there are no growers?” Arvens Technology CEO Sudhir Seth summed up the problem. A few years back, along with a group of Indian investors, he had formed BMI as a biodiesel project, with a goal of constructing a 45 Mgy plant in Peoria.

“It was a $45M project that went all the way through permitting with the Illinois EPA,” Seth recalled, “when suddenly one fine morning the biodiesel tax credit disappeared. Whatever relationships we had formed, started to fall apart. Eventually, we had no other options put that project on hold.”

The problem: tax credits…or something else?

The problem with the project, though, isn’t really the biodiesel tax credit. Lord knows the industry could use one, and friends like Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin of Iowa have struggled mightily to deliver one. They may well succeed in the lame-duck session of the US Congress just convened out of the ashes of the fall elections in Washington.

But, to repeat ourselves, the problem isn’t in the tax credit, or the processing technology, or certainly in the end user market. Lord knows there have been few fuels, perhaps none, that have ever commanded such a following as biodiesel.

The problem is in the feedstock. or rather in the cost of it. Its such a well known problem that the industry has stopped talking much about it. There’s just a shrug. What can you do about it? Grow some algae, develop a hybrid jatropha platform, become a pioneer in camelina. There’s a million tricks in the bag of mystical-ways-to-bypass-the-unaffordability-of-oilseed-crops.

Of course, we’ve seen the wonder feedstock cycle before:

What’s [insert feedstock of choice]? Ah, [feedstock] needs more R&D. Eureka![feedstock] will solve everything. Oops, [feedstock] needs a transitional subsidy. Shame![feedstock] will cause deforestation in the Amazon. Scam! [feedstock] will solve nothing.Brothers, [feedstock] is a crime against humanity. Uh, [feedstock] needs more R&D, please sir.”

The inverse law of knowledge

It’s what John “Doctor No” Benneman calls the inverse law of knowledge:

“The announcement from the USDA adivsory board about “algae looking good” (and “lignocellulosic ethanol bad”) and the news today about the entire lignocellulosic ethanol debacle makes last week look like the good old days.  Or am I reading too much into these tea leaves?  Unfortunately, the USDA advisers are just following the inverse law of knowledge law: the less you know the better it looks, and vice-versa.  Now that they understand a little about lignocellulosic ethanol, gosh, does not looks so good anymore, so let us drop this flame and go on a date with pond scum, that looks really good as we don’t know anything.   One of these days it will dawn on these worthies that neither algae nor ethanol nor whatever will not be THE solution to the oil or climate change or whatever problem, and then we can start doing something rational.”

If we take Dr. Benneman’s suppose that there will be a wide variety of solutions, and on the assumption that we are not going to be importing feedstock from Neptune, we had better look amongst our existing terrestrial genetic supply.

Which brings us back to, ahem, the real problem, or the problem behind the problem of the high cost of feedstock. Those pesky farmers, they have the inexplicable desire to sell to the highest buyer, and make a profit. And they don’t much like risk, or at least when it is explained that they are the ones who have to assume it.

So what is this, anyway, a Soviet?

De-risking the proposition to the grower

Its just darn difficult to get farmers to throw in the towel on a proven crop and substitute another – no matter how big the promise. Unless, like the catfish farmers of the Deep South or tenders of the fallow fields of Southern Africa, there’s desperation in the mix.

The problem beneath the problem beneath the problem is the problem of the drop-in crop. That’s the one that substitutes for an existing one – soy for corn, cane for hay. Its been hard to get farmers to get behind a low-cost feedstock – because almost invariably there’s a loss of income, or the risk of a loss of income.

But then there’s fanweed. You might have heard of it as stinkweed, or french weed, or mithridite mustard, or more popularly known as field pennycress. You might have heard of it described as a bagful of money waiting to be harvested. It’s a mustard seed, one of the Brassicaceae.

So what’s the secret?

The low-risk opportunities in cover crops

It’s not planted as a substitute, but as a transition crop, a cover crop.

“You grow over the winter, you plant before soybeans, with big trucks they can lay on the field with 70 foot booms, and plant 200 acres an hour at very low cost,” said Seth.

“There’s 130,000 acres sitting right there in Illinois, and with a target of 200 gallons per acre, that’s 26 million gallons. 130,000 acres is what our collaborator farmer group cultivates every year. Potential acres that can become available in the Cornbelt, corridor between I-70 and I-80 between NE and OH, is about 40 million acres. This is capable of producing 8 billion of alternative biofuels every year without impacting the food supply. This can generate additional farm income of about than $4 billion every year at $100 per acre.”

200 gallons per acre, for pennycress in Illinois? Well, actually that’s a long-term target. 1 ton per acre, and researches are working on 115 gpa test plot data, showing that can work. At 1000 tons per day, you have enough for a pretty solid biodiesel project.

The enabler. It’s all basically upside, really. There’s no miraculous drop-in crop, nor is it being promoted as global solution to the feedstock problem, or the energy security problem, or the carbon emissions problem. You get some jobs, and some upside income for the farmer.

Turns out, that modest goal is a pretty good one. For it turns out that a ‘few jobs and some extra income for the farmer’ is a better proposition for the small town and the local farmer than going all-in on a frankenfeedstock produced by the dark lords of Berkeley.

Arvens, and the opportunities in pennycress

So, Sudhir Seth and his band of colleagues have formed Arvens Technology, Inc, and  have developed what they believe is a compelling business case based on a combination of a fungible oil, crushed out of the plant, and the residual, high-energy content press cake, which works well as a biomass combustion owing to its very uniform density.

“For the press cake,” Seth advises, “we might sell it to utilities for co-firing, and we’re talking to a few companies. UOP is one possibility for a JV to construct a presscake processing plant to convert to bio-oil. Envergent has gone pretty ahead and developed a patent pending process for pennycress meal.

“What we hear is that the result is unlike any other bio-oil they get. There’s a neutral pH, highly stable, oxidation not a problem, not all that viscous. There’s a technology we own and patents are pending. Envergent is running their own and getting similar results. Our model in collaboration is that we will pass along our technology and they will run it and modify.  Then we will discuss a business model, perhaps a JV, to build a standalone plant.”

Other nice aspects of pennycress biodiesel? According to ARS tests, it has a cloud point fourteen degrees Fahrenheit lower than soy biodiesel. That’s a material difference, especially for those cold mornings for truckers along the highways of the far north.

“If we produce field pennycress for biodiesel, there’s no food-versus-fuel issue,”  “It can be cultivated in the winter, also helping to protect the soil from erosion,” ARS chemist Bryan Moser told the Central Valley Business Times some time ago. “After the pennycress is harvested in the spring, the same field can be used for corn or soybean production.”

Something special in thinking small, thinking ‘grower’

Is this the $2 per gallon feedstock that biodiesel needs? Could be. It’s a little part of the big solution. Could be just something for Illinois and related climates. For now, that is. Because we know that, on the whole, pennycress is an undomesticated crop, and if we think about where corn and sugar cane started from, back when they were undomesticated, it suggests that perhaps bright days lie ahead for pennycress. Or french weed. Or fanweed. Basically, whatchamacallit. Turns out that, in the end, its better to have a catchy business case than a catchy name.

And there’s something special in thinking small, or at least thinking through the problem from the farmer’s point of view. Because the world of biomass starts with one very special person. That’s the grower.

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