Energy Innovation from the Heartland

by Peter B. Johnsen
Biofuels Manufacturers of Illinois

Pennycress may change the way America produces renewable biodiesel fuel.

Central Illinois has established itself as a leader in America’s renewable energy economy by becoming one of the nation’s largest producers of fuel ethanol. While the fields of Illinois have traditionally grown corn to make ethanol and soybeans to make biodiesel, today the fields around Peoria are also sprouting new wind turbines. A closer look at some of those fields, however, would reveal innovation in the form of a new crop, quietly growing as the spring weather warms.

This new crop is pennycress, and it may change the way America produces renewable biodiesel fuel. Yielding nearly four times the amount of biofuel as soybeans, pennycress offers other significant social, environmental and economic benefits. As an energy crop, it is not part of the “food vs. fuel” debate, and its use reduces greenhouse gases compared to petro-diesel. The crop is planted in the fall and harvested in the spring, allowing farmers to grow soybeans after pennycress and earn additional income with two crops in the same year. It’s like adding a second shift to the agriculture production system.

The “Chicken-or-Egg” Problem
Innovation is especially complex in agriculture. One key hurdle is the classic “chicken-or-egg” problem. How do you produce a new renewable fuel if the crop is not available? But how do you produce the crop if you don’t have a fuel market established?  Other challenges are technical, scientific, social and environmental. To overcome these, strategic partnerships are critical to successful innovation. We are fortunate that a unique convergence of the appropriate partners can be found in this region.

The energy potential of pennycress was identified by scientists at the USDA National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, known locally as the Ag Lab.  They found that this common winter weed produced large quantities of seeds with an oil composition perfect for conversion to biodiesel. It had promise as an energy source, but to become a commercial crop, it needed a guaranteed market before farmers would commit to growing it. This was the “chicken-or-egg” challenge.

Biofuels Manufacturers of Illinois (BMI) founder and CEO Sudhir Seth recognized the energy potential and economic benefit of pennycress and decided to help promote it as an energy crop. BMI will operate a 45-million-gallon-per-year biodiesel plant designed to use soybean oil and animal fats when it begins operation.  Seth, however, committed BMI to utilizing pennycress oil in the future. This helped solve part of the “chicken-or-egg” problem by providing the necessary market pull to stimulate commercial farming of pennycress by area farmers.

The final critical link was a strategic partnership with Growmark, one of the largest farmer-owned cooperatives operating in the Midwest and Canada, to purchase and market 100 percent of the biodiesel produced by BMI. Now a complete supply chain extended from pennycress production by farmers to biodiesel manufacturing by BMI and finally to fuel marketing by Growmark.

Harnessing the Potential
Pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) is a member of the mustard family, and the high oil content of its seeds makes it an excellent energy crop. Containing 36-percent oil compared to soybeans, with 18-percent oil, approximately 110 gallons of biodiesel per acre can be produced with pennycress, compared to 55 gallons from soybeans. An almost equal amount of biofuel can be produced from the remaining seedcake after the oil is extracted. With this combined yield of 200 gallons, pennycress produces twice the biofuel of other biomass crops, such as switchgrass or forest crops, and nearly four times the fuel obtained from soybeans.

While pennycress seeds are very small, traditional seed drills and combines are used to plant and harvest. The crop requires little fertilizer or other inputs, and after the spring harvest, farmers can plant soybeans and raise a second crop that year. The estimated profit to farmers is expected to be in the $175-per-acre range. This would be additional income to the farmer who plants soybeans as the follow-on crop in a double-cropping management plan. The 45-million-gallon BMI plant will require 500,000 acres of commercial pennycress production, with the direct economic benefit to the region of over $100 million of new money each year.

To further develop pennycress as an energy crop integrated with current agricultural practices, the unique capabilities of central Illinois partners are being harnessed.  In addition to the partnership with the Ag Lab, BMI is also working with Western Illinois University (WIU) geneticists to develop pennycress varieties that perform better than the wild types currently being grown. The Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs is also working with BMI, USDA and WIU to conduct research on optimizing farming practices to produce pennycress as part of a multi-crop rotation that yield maximized energy, environmental and economic benefits. To put this knowledge into action, BMI is now actively recruiting regional farmers to begin production of pennycress.

For further information on pennycress, visit

While the energy and economic benefits of renewable fuel are apparent to most, critics of renewable fuels have raised social and environmental issues, including the “food vs. fuel” controversy. Growing pennycress as an energy crop avoids this issue completely because it is not used as a food source for humans or animals, and therefore, its energy use will not compete with food uses. Additionally, because it is grown as a winter annual planted in the fall and harvested in the spring, it does not compete for land that might otherwise be used to grow food crops during the traditional summer growing season. Nor will double-cropping with soybeans cause further natural habitat destruction to supply renewable energy.

Pennycress biodiesel has significant social and environmental benefits as well. A winter annual, it serves as a cover crop protecting soil from wind and water erosion. Biodiesel decreases greenhouse gas emissions by more than 70 percent over conventional petro-diesel. The net energy ratio for pennycress, when both oil and seedcake are used, is expected to be greater than 10 to one. That is, 10 times more energy is produced by pennycress than is required to grow, transport and manufacture the fuel.

The future energy requirements of our country will be met in part though the production of renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. Pennycress may change the way America produces renewable biodiesel fuel. Our region is uniquely positioned to both create innovations through the application of strategic partnerships and benefit from the economic activity that this shift to renewable energy will bring.

Pennycress can change the way we think about transportation fuel. We can now begin to look to our local farm fields for our energy supply as we turn away from dependence on the oil fields of the Middle East. iBi

Peter B. Johnsen is a scientist, farmer and chief technology officer of Biofuels Manufacturers of Illinois, LLC. For many years he was the Director of the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria. He can be reached at