Agricultural scientists are in the lab looking for ways to help break Pennsylvania’s dependence on foreign oil. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons user Immersia)
Scientists and entrepreneurs are teaming up to develop a biofuel crop that’s both eco-friendly and profitable. Biodiesel from soybeans has been king in Pennsylvania. But fluctuating soybean prices are pushing biodiesel producers to find alternatives. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons user Immersia)
Mary Seton with Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences says a tree called jatropha is an intriguing contender in the search for the next generation of plants that can be used for fuel.
Seton: The thing that’s great about jatropha is that it doesn’t compete with the food system, and still has really high oil content, so you can get a high yield.
The shrub thrives on marginal land, and compared to soybeans, crushed jatropha seeds produce more than four times the oil per acre.
The trees stand up to pests and drought and backers say producing biodiesel from jatropha takes half as much energy as using soybeans. The pluses are adding up, but there’s a problem. Jatropha grows most comfortably in balmly places like India and Costa Rica.
Seton: What they are looking at is how to grow heartier versions of this plant. They are trying to create hybrids so that they can grow it in non-tropical area like Pennsylvania.
Geneticist Sairam Rudrabhatla from Penn State Harrisburg is trying to alter jatropha cells, so the plants can stand up to Pennsylvania winters.
Rudrabhatla: We are working with other groups in Australia who have the antifreeze gene that is brought from Antarctica so plants can grow even at minus 50 degrees Celsius.
To turn jatropha into a moneymaker, Rudrabhatla says he’ll need to coax the trees to bloom more quickly. Jatropha takes about a year to produce its oil-rich seeds.
Rudrabhatla: We are working on reducing that to four to six months, so that translates into the dollars.
Biodiesel production from jatropha is up and running in other parts of the world, but Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman Mark O’Neil says businessman-farmers have questions about jatropha’s value in local markets.
O’Neil: He can’t grow a field, or hundreds of acres of a certain crop and not have a destination for that crop. While we’re looking at alternative measures we want to make sure that the farmer still has somewhere to go with his crops in order to remain profitable.
The big promise of home-grown fuels is “energy independence,” but state producers say this region doesn’t have nearly enough crop sources to wean Pennsylvania off petroleum-based diesel.
Agricultural engineer Tom Richard says a better way to boost Pennsylvania’s biodiesel production is to integrate fuel and food crops on the same acreage. But jatropha is a tree and stays rooted season after season.
Richard: So if you put in a jatropha plantation on farmland, you are not growing whatever you grew there before.
Richard directs the Institutes of Energy and the Environment in State College. He’s excited by rotation crops like winter canola and camelina from Canada that could reduce soil erosion.
Richard: This way you can actually take the same land, still get all the food you got off it before and get this other bioenergy crop off it at the same time.
Richard says another solution is to invest in plants that can be used as barrier crops around farms or planted along streams to absorb farm runoff. Jatropha may be used in that way, but again it’s not clear.
John Nikoloff runs Energy Resources Group, a consulting firm in Harrisburg. He thinks large-scale jatropha production is many years away.
Nikoloff: There are smaller oil seeds that haven’t been grown in Pennsylvania before like canola and camelina which have been tested. Farmers will probably look to them first.
Whether it’s jatropha, canola or some other crop that emerges first, Nikoloff says it’s going to take a slew of alternative energy sources to accomplish energy independence.