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Photo: Cuphea bloom. Link to photo information
ARS researchers have produced oils by the barrelful from cuphea and other alternative crops, which may represent new domestic sources of industrial products ranging from soap to biofuels for cars, trucks and—in the case of Cuphea—even jet fuel. Click the image for more information about it.

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Producing New U.S. Energy Crops by the Barrel

By Don Comis
October 10, 2008

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists in Peoria, Ill., have produced oils of camelina, canola, Cuphea, lesquerella, milkweed and pennycress by the barrelful in their commercial-scale pilot plant.

These alternative crops may be able to provide alternative domestic sources of industrial products ranging from soap to biofuels for cars, trucks and—in the case of Cuphea—even jet fuel.

Plant physiologist Russ Gesch and colleagues at the ARS North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory in Morris, Minn., have studied Cuphea since 1999. They work closely with companies such as Procter & Gamble of Cincinnati, Ohio. Procter & Gamble uses the type of fatty acids found in Cuphea to make laundry detergent and other products.

The Morris scientists also work hand-in-hand with Terry Isbell and others at the ARS New Crops and Processing Technology Research Unit, part of the agency's National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria. Gesch and his co-workers study ways to grow the crops profitably, while Isbell and his colleagues focus on methods of processing the crops into industrial products.

These crops all offer ways to sustainably grow fuel and industrial products without depleting either the U.S. food supply or soils. The Morris scientists also are beginning a long-term study of a corn-soybean crop rotation plan that includes grasses for making cellulosic ethanol: switchgrass, big bluestem, indiangrass, and a sorghum-Sudangrass hybrid.

Their goal is to develop cropping systems for optimal biomass production while maintaining or enhancing soil productivity.

For example, when farmers plant pennycress as a winter crop, followed by soybean as a summer crop, they are producing fuel in the winter and food in the summer.

Cuphea is one of the few sources of oils in the United States that contain the type of fatty acids needed to make soaps, cosmetics, motor oils and industrial lubricants. These oils currently are produced commercially only in the tropics, from palm kernel and coconut oils.

Read more about this research in the October 2008 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is a scientific research agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.