Starting this month, South Dakota State University researchers are embarking on a comprehensive effort to help the U.S. Navy meet a goal of fueling a jet and ship fleet with alternative energy.
The effort, which is receiving its first major funding, also is a move to try to open more doors for South Dakota producers who could find a new oilseed crop that might fit into their cropping systems.
“It’s really about opportunity and economic development for South Dakota, and what’s attractive about it is that there’s a customer waiting. That’s why we wanted to grasp the opportunity,” said Daniel Scholl, who is about to enter his second year as director of SDSU Extension’s Agricultural Experiment Station and its six field operations covering 17,000 acres.
Scholl returned earlier this month from a trip to Washington, D.C., where he met with Chris Tindal, director for operational energy for the Navy, who has visited South Dakota and has developed a strong relationship with the staff here, including Kevin Kephart, SDSU’s vice president of research.
The new project, which is unique because it’s funded for the most part by the South Dakota Legislature – instead of federal funding – to the tune of $1.35 million over three years, isn’t about ethanol or biodiesel. It’s about what’s called a “drop-in” equivalent fuel that can be mixed or alternated with petroleum products.
Crops being considered so far in the effort called the “Oilseed Crops Initiative” in South Dakota are oilseed plants such as the promising Ethiopian mustard, crambe and camelina, to name the primary prospects so far.
Also under consideration as a source for the “drop-in” replacement is oil extracted from distillers grain from existing ethanol plants. Currently, most corn oil derived from ethanol facilities is not suitable for human food use.
Kathy Grady, an Extension oilseed specialist, already is growing crambe on a small plot at the Agricultural Experiment Station research farm north of the Brookings, S.D., campus.
Although the testing there is for another project, it will be intertwined with the new initiative. The crop was growing well, but an insect problem was developing that Grady said she will monitor for the rest of the summer.
As for Ethiopian mustard, Canadian researchers already have started projects on the oilseed crop that has shown some promise, said Scholl, who came to South Dakota from the University of Montreal.
The flowering mustard, already grown as an oilseed crop in Ethiopia, is an option to canola and more resistant to heat and drought, Grady said.
Crambe also is an oilseed crop. The species of crambe that is grown as an oilseed crop (crambe abyssinica) is an annual, not a perennial. Crambe oil is inedible and high in erucic acid, which makes it similar to industrial rapeseed oil. The crop currently is grown in some areas for birdseed.
Camelina, an annual plant, grows to heights of 1 foot to 3 feet, with branching stems that reach maturity in 85 to 100 days. It’s gaining notice for being able to withstand water shortages in its early stages of development.
Camelina is harvested and seeded with conventional farming equipment, which makes adding it to a crop rotation relatively easy for producers. It’s already being grown in Canada, with current acres totaling about 50,000, but the Camelina Association of Canada projects that the United States’ northern neighbor could have 1 million to 3 million acres planted in the near future.
Several factors are slowing the spread of camelina cultivation in Canada as it lacks government crop classification and approval as livestock feed. However, in early 2010, Health Canada approved camelina oil as a food.
Montana, North Dakota and now South Dakota are testing camelina for its potential as a biofuel and biolubricant. Studies have shown that camelina-based jet fuel reduces net carbon emissions by about 80 percent. The Navy chose it as the feedstock for its first test of plans to sail a "great green fleet" by 2016, a carrier battle group powered entirely by nonfossil fuels.
The reason that soybeans or canola aren’t planned as part of the “green” project is that the Navy has a priority of using feedstocks not in competition with food production.
“They want a fuel mixture that’s derived from crops that aren’t part of the human food chain,” Kephart said. “That eliminates soybeans and canola, and sunflower oil is a gray area.”
Scholl said alternative oilseeds could be a positive for farmers from the central and western parts of the state because of the crops’ tolerance to heat and low rainfall.
He also said it could be part of a crop rotation with no-till wheat farmers, offering a broadleaf tool in the rotation that could break up diseases and insect problems.
“But you can’t rotate it unless you have someone to market it to. We have a customer,” Kephart said.
That’s the Navy.
Tindal was in Sioux Falls on July 20 to talk with state and commodity group officials about the project. He had just returned from Hawaii, where the Navy held a fleet demonstration project using biofuels.
The Navy will need 8 million barrels of alternative “green diesel” for surface ships and also 8 million barrels of jet fuel to run supersonic fighters, helicopters, logistical aircraft and generators by 2020.
Kephart said 8 million barrels equals about 336 million gallons of the fuel “drop-in” needed for each product.
“Everybody’s reaction is ‘wow,’ ” Kephart said. “But just think about where we are with ethanol. We have a plant six miles east of here that produces 120 million gallons of ethanol per year. I think it’s a doable job to get done by the end of this decade.”
“It’s just a small piece of the ultimate market for biofuels,” Scholl said.
However, when asked when commercial production could begin, Kephart was hesitant to say.
“I don’t know if you could give an answer to that. Any product we come up with has to be given to the oil industry. The Navy doesn’t refine oil or produce fuel but buys it from a company, so we will be working with the petroleum industry.”
Scholl emphasized that the South Dakota initiative is comprehensive because it will look at breeding, genetics, conversion, fuel characteristics and economics as part of the project.
“The economics is an important set of questions for our potential growers,” Scholl said.
Working with private industry partners also will be needed, he said.
In the mid-term, this would involve capital investment in crushing facilities and a logistics infrastructure, establishing a seed industry and supporting plant breeding programs.
Federal grant money totaling $300,000 during the three years also is going into the South Dakota project through the Sun Grant Initiative.
The Senate version of the farm bill currently includes similar funding for the Sun Grant research effort, which provides aid to SDSU and four other research universities in the United States: Cornell, the University of Tennessee, Oklahoma State University and Oregon State University.
Besides another crop alternative, especially for arid and semi-arid areas of western South Dakota and North Dakota and eastern Montana, the new oilseed crops could maintain or improve soil quality while also providing disease and pest control.
Scholl said that research might show, however, that the crops would fit into rotations prevalent in other areas of the states, too.
As for current biodiesel products, Kephart has written that they don’t meet military jet fuel specifications because they contain oxygen, they can congeal at cold temperatures and they don’t have a sufficiently high energy density.