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From roadside weed to new source of biofuel

Pennycress, a common plant found along many of America's roads, could become a new source of biofuel, according to USDA researchers.
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Written by Andrew Nusca on

A common plant found along many of America's roads could become a new source of biofuel, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers.

Scientists found that field pennycress yields large quantities of seeds whose oil could then be used for biodiesel production.

That's because the plant belongs to the Brassicaceae family, along with oil-rich siblings canola, camelina and mustard.

Working at the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill., chemists Bryan Moser (pictured at right), Gerhard Knothe and Terry Isbell obtained oil from wild field pennycress, pre-treated it with acid and dipped it in a type of alcohol called methanol, causing the pennycress to react and produce biodiesel and glycerol.

Once refined, the biodiesel demonstrated that it had the potential to become a commercial commodity.

It's not just a matter of producing biodiesel, of course -- it's producing a biodiesel with a sufficient quality to be used in today's engines and using an energy source that doesn't compete with other needs, like corn-derived ethanol.

Measuring the pennycress biofuel's "cloud" and "pour" points -- the temperature when crystals form in the fuel and the temperature at which the fuel is too solid to pour, respectively -- the researchers found that pennycress-derived biodiesel is best for cold climates, and better than the soybean oil-based biodiesel in existence today.

What's more, pennycress can be grown during the winter and harvested in late spring -- a season that doesn't compete with farmers' summer soybean production.

Is pennycress the next great biofuel source? It's unclear. But the more energy sources we find for biofuel -- that is, the more ways we figure out how to use what's around us as fuel -- the better.

Their research was published in Energy & Fuels and Agricultural Research magazine.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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