Even better, growing pennycress actually benefits the food
crops it is grown in rotation with; it acts as a cover crop, preventing erosion and nitrogen leakage into ground water, as it uses the
leftover nitrogen from the corn crop.
To produce oil from the seeds, only the traditional and highly
available production, logistics, and processing equipment is
required. Seeds need to be crushed using a screw press (or full
press)—high pressure from an expeller squeezes the oil from the
seeds leaving behind a press cake. This process is less complex
than soybean oil extraction or ethanol production. USDA research
found that the oil can be converted to fatty acid methyl esters
(FAME) using a sodium methoxide catalyst in methanol.
WHAt’s tHE cAtcH?
Even as a consideration for biofuel, the plant is not new. Reports
have been appearing for years, quietly evangelizing the positive
attributes of so-called “stinkweed.” So what’s holding it back? The
simplest reason why pennycress is still on the side lines of the biodiesel industry is cost. Growing the crop is not yet economically
viable and thus persuading farmers to cultivate it is difficult. Pennycress is caught in a “catch 22”—it will only become cost effective once it is grown in large quantities but no one is willing to
commit to growing it until it is clear that it can make money.
An answer to this problem is, however, already on its way
from a young US biotech firm called Arvegenix. Arvegenix may
only be three years old, but it’s got experience on its side. Jerry
Steiner, the company’s founder, is a former Monsanto executive,
and many other members of the modest team also bring decades
of knowledge to the table. In 2013, Arvegenix had only 300 plots
being tested under field conditions. The number of plots grew
to over 2,000 in 2014, and now the team has over 6,000 plots
planted at a range of different locations.
An article published in February 2015 in the Seattle Times
reports on the company’s research. Arvegenix is attempting to
domesticate a wild strain of pennycress (just as soybean was
domesticated in the 1920s). The company is aware of the qualities of pennycress, but it also has a strong understanding of what
needs to be done to make a future with pennycress-based biodiesel a reality; it is focusing on “using advanced breeding technology to nudge the plant toward something better than it is
today. A plant needs to be more predictable, more consistent
and one that produces a higher oil yield.” Achieve these simple
goals and the crop will have “no trouble attracting the attention
of farmers,” Dennis Plummer told the Seattle Times. Arvegenix
is hoping to achieve domestication of the crop by the end of this
According to a report in the St. Louis Business Journal in May
2015, Arvegenix has succeeded in raising US$2.5 million from a
group of investors including Monsanto, Cultivation Capital, and
BioGenerator to be used to expand the R&D program, as well as
fund regulatory studies and grow operations.
ONcE A WEED, AlWAys A WEED
The final hurdle facing the large-scale production of pennycress
is that it is currently listed on the restricted weed list in nine pro-
spective growing-states of the northern Unites States, including
Michigan and Iowa. The EPA’s report on the crop notes that this
indicates “limitations on the use of the plant in those [states] and
a high probability of impacting production systems such as agri-
culture, nurseries and forest plantations.”
Many farmers may need convincing that pennycress isn’t
going to become invasive. Biodiesel Magazine interviewed Terry
Isbell, lead researcher in the new crops and processing tech-
nology group at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization
Research in Peoria, Illinois, who explained: “Farmers will be con-
cerned that the plant will take over their fields.” Corn and soy-
bean’s ordinary herbicide programs should control the spread of
pennycress. However, if rotated with other winter annuals, he
admits a problem could be created during that season (not affect-
ing summer crops).
gREENHOUsE gAs EMIssIONs
Pennycress is clearly becoming an oilseed to watch, and in just a
few short years it could be at a stage where planting the winter
annual is the more popular choice.
In preparation, Arvens Technology—pennycress developers
seeking to produce biofuel and aviation jet fuel from the crop—
filed a petition with the EPA, leading it to undertake the previously mentioned analysis of the crop’s GHG emissions. The report
thoroughly examined the production and transportation of the oil
and noted that: “new agricultural sector modelling is not needed
to evaluate the lifecycle GHG impacts of using pennycress oil as a
biofuel feedstock for purposes of making GHG reduction threshold determinations for the RFS program. This is in part because of
the similarities of pennycress oil to soybean oil and camelina oil,
and because pennycress is not expected to have significant land
use change impacts.” Instead of performing new agricultural sector modelling, EPA relied upon the soybean oil analysis conducted
for the March 2010 rule to assess the relative GHG impacts of
growing and transporting pennycress oil for use as a biofuel
The 2015 report additionally looked into the future of pennycress cultivation and what could be achieved. As the crop can
be rotated with soybeans the USDA determines that “pennycress
could be cultivated on 31 million acres in Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, and
Indiana”—current soybean growing spaces. “However, industry
is also considering cultivating pennycress in other Midwest corn-belt states and, according to their estimates, 40 million acres
could be cultivated,” the report added.
The report is now closed for comments, which the EPA
will review, combining them with its own evaluations of GHG
emissions associated with the agricultural use of pennycress oil
feedstock and emissions attributed to producers’ production processes to “determine whether the proposed pathways satisfy CAA
lifecycle GHG emissions reduction requirements for RFS-qualify-ing renewable fuels.” The report concluded that it anticipates biofuel produced from pennycress “could qualify as biomass-based
diesel or advanced biofuel (when using typical fuel production
Rose Hales is editorial assistant at Oils & Fats International.
This article was reprinted with permission from the July/August
2015 issue of OFI magazine and updated by Inform staff.