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ARS Researchers Flying Higher With New Jet Fuels

In 2011, US airlines burned through nearly 19 billion gallons of fuel, which goes a long way in explaining the establishment of “FARM to FLY,” a partnership among the US Department of Agriculture, Airlines for America, Inc., the Boeing Company, and others to advance the development and production of aviation biofuel. Work by ARS scientists and their university and industry partners will help ensure that this effort pays off.

ARS chemist Terry Isbell is managing the workflow for scientists and support staff throughout the 4-year project, which is funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“We’re looking for the ideal plant oils—and the ways to produce them—for making hydrotreated renewable jet fuel,” Isbell says, who works in the ARS BioOils Research Unit at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Illinois.

Brassica juncea is one of several oilseed crops being studied for potential use in biofuel production.
Credit: Robert Evans.

“By taking a complete supply-chain systems approach, we’ll be able to reduce the costs of these fuels and make them more competitive with petroleum jet fuel.”

Project scientists are looking for genetic traits in oilseeds that enhance fuel production and using those traits to develop new oilseed strains for biofuel.

They are focusing on improving sustainable production practices for oilseed crops and streamlining methods for pre- and postharvest oilseed processing.

Achieving these objectives will help increase grower profits, lower feedstock costs for biorefiners, and improve the efficiency of conversion of rapeseed, a type of oilseed, to jet fuel.

“Every 1-percent increase in efficiency we can achieve in the hydrotreated renewable-jet-fuel supply chain reduces the production cost of each gallon by 5 cents,” adds ARS national program leader Jeffrey Steiner, who assembled the project team and continues to participate in the research activities.

“These costs savings can add up very quickly and could translate into significantly more business for agriculture.”

One Project, Many Options

To this end, Isbell and his colleagues will be cultivating varieties, experimental lines, and around 2,000 germplasm accessions of Brassica napus—industrial rapeseed, a nonfood variety of canola—in experimental trials in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, and Texas.

This will give scientists a range of oilseed material to work with as they assess how to maximize production and seed-oil yields for agricultural environments across the inland Pacific Northwest, the southern Great Plains Prairie Gateway, and the Northern Great Plains.

These sites are also prime production areas for US wheat, so the researchers want to identify rapeseed/wheat rotation systems that don’t disrupt food-crop production for biofuel production. They will also be collecting information to see how rotating rapeseed in wheat fields could help reduce erosion, increase water-holding capacities, and reduce the need for herbicides, while increasing dependable supplies of oilseeds for production. The Navy’s Office of Naval Research is helping to fund this work.

ARS scientists Michael Gore and Matthew Jenks are working with University of Idaho plant breeder Jack Brown to sort through the genomes of each variety of rapeseed and find traits that can improve seed yield, oil yield, oil quality, and conversion efficiency of rapeseed oil to biofuel.

The scientists will also identify traits that boost rapeseed tolerance to heat and cold, water stress, and other agronomic factors. Gore and Jenks work at the US Arid-Land Agricultural Research Center in Maricopa, Arizona, and Jenks serves as coordinator for the Western Regional Center.

“This is a large testing population with tremendous trait variability, and the Brassica genome contains a significant amount of DNA variation at the population level,” says Gore.

“So first we’ll sequence the thousands of genomic regions across individuals in the populations to catalog the extensive DNA variation. Then we’ll conduct statistical tests to identify associations between DNA variation and different traits. It will be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack with a magnifying glass.”

As part of this process, the researchers will work with Steve Lupton, Stan Frey, and others at Honeywell UOP to identify promising traits for biofuel processing. The ARS team will develop 1-gallon batches of bio-oil from the most promising oilseed candidates, and the UOP researchers will then assess the test fuels to determine which oilseed genetic lines produce oils with the most favorable traits for renewable jet fuel production.

“Once we’ve identified important genetic traits that improve fuel production from oilseeds—whether it’s in the crop field or in the biofuel production process—we’ll be able to apply the results to the entire jet fuel supply chain. Another benefit from our work is that these results can be applied to edible canola oil, which is a variety of rapeseed, and other crops that provide significant amounts of seed oil such as cotton,” says Jenks. “We’ll also use the ARS SoyBase genomics database in Ames, Iowa, as a model for developing a genetic information system for Brassica.”

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

October 2012

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