SDSU works toward ground-breaking way to fuel planes


South Dakota State researchers are working to perfect a process that could allow them to turn mustard seeds into jet fuel for Navy fighter planes.

If people like Bill Gibbons are successful, some West River farmers could have a new crop to plant as early as next year, and the Navy will have an alternative to petroleum based fuel, which is important because petroleum can be made less accessible by natural disasters or even terrorism.

After Hurricane Katrina decreased the amount of oil produced in the Gulf region, the Navy was sent searching for an alternative to petroleum-based jet fuel. The Navy decided the production of this type of fuel was vulnerable, and their answer was to talk to land-grant universities to find alternative options. Where the Navy saw a weakness, South Dakota State saw an opportunity.

A research team in Brookings, led by Gibbons, a biology and microbiology professor, has been studying carinata, a variety of Ethiopian mustard seed. This research stems from a project by the South Dakota Legislature and the South Dakota Oilseed Council.

 “We’re putting a significant effort into this,” James Doolittle, associate vice-president of research, said. “It’s a priority of the state and it fits well with our land-grant mission.”

 SDSU is teaming with the University of Florida to lead the charge in producing enough fuel for the Navy. South Dakota’s climate allows carinata to be grown March through October, and weather in the South gives carinata the opportunity to be grown as a crop during the opposite months.

 After several years of study, researchers picked carinata as the most viable oilseed to produce jet fuel. Conditions in western South Dakota are near perfect to grow carinata. The mustard seed doesn’t need much water and can grow in fairly dry and warm conditions in the spring through the fall.

 Researchers wanted non-food oilseeds to produce jet fuel because they did not compete with food, feed for livestock or farmland, Gibbons said. Carinata did just that.

 To process carinata into jet fuel, the seeds must first be crushed and separated into oil and meal. Then, the oil is put through a hydrocracking process with high temperatures, catalysts and hydrogen. This produces a composition that is the same as JP-8, the type of petroleum-based fuel jets use, Gibbons said.

The Navy will need about 8 billion barrels of jet fuel made from alternative sources by 2020, Chris Tindal, director for operational energy for the Navy, told SDSU in 2013.

 “It’s military-tested,” Rick Vallery said, executive director of the South Dakota Oilseeds Council. “Jets using carinata fuel have longer engine life, fly faster and fly higher than any blend.”

 To meet the Navy’s projected numbers, South Dakota will have to start producing carinata on a commercial scale. Currently, there are fewer than 100 acres of it growing in South Dakota, Gibbons said. Each acre can produce 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of carinata.

It takes about 33 pounds of carinata to produce one gallon of fuel. North Dakota and Montana are already growing on a commercial scale for biofuel production and livestock feed supplement at about 6,000 acres in each state.

 This would produce about 363,636 gallons of jet fuel per year for each of the 6,000 acres. South Dakota can expect similar numbers once commercial production starts, Gibbons said.

When selling their carinata seed, producers are selling in contracts while the market is in the growth stage, with the prices being tied to canola prices. Eventually, it will be priced on its own once the market develops.

 This August, South Dakota residents can see fuel made from carinata in action. The Blue Angels will perform in Sioux Falls using blended fuel from South Dakota carinata, said Dean Barry Dunn of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences in a joint Committee on Appropriations hearing during the 2016 South Dakota Legislative session.

Funding for carinata research comes primarily from the Legislature and the South Dakota Oilseeds Council. Dunn said the South Dakota Legislature has given $1.8 million to the project, and they’ve received $2.9 million in matching funds. This includes the $20,000 received annually from the Oilseeds Council. The project is administered through the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station. Funding for this project is a small part of the $45 million budget the Experiment Stations works with for fiscal year 2016.

 “We wanted to expand our own oilseeds to allow farmers and ranchers to have another crop,” Vallery said. “It was fairly easy to envision the market opportunity.”

 In addition to fulfilling the Navy’s needs, Gibbons has big ideas for what growing carinata could mean in South Dakota.

 “Carinata might be a win-win for South Dakota producers and the Navy,” Gibbons said.

 Not only can carinata provide an alternative fuel option, but the meal and protein residue can be used to supplement livestock diets – primarily beef and dairy cattle, swine and fish. In addition to being used as feed, the introduction of a potential new crop into crop rotations could spell out good things for the future, Gibbons said.

 Introducing a new crop into a rotation is always beneficial but especially so in the case of western South Dakota. Because of the sandy soil West River, leftover nitrogen from fertilizer can seep into the soil, eventually polluting the groundwater. Carinata has deep enough roots that it can use this nitrogen and improve the water quality, Gibbons said.

 “It’s so beneficial to farmers,” Vallery said. “There’s not a lot of inputs and it has environmental benefits. It can even be a benefit to national security.”

 Though the carinata seed will grow in South Dakota, Valley and Gibbons foresee a few challenges when it comes to commercial growth.

 “It’s basically a chicken-and-egg situation when it comes to get producers to grow carinata,” Vallery said. “In order for producers to want to grow it, there has to be a market for it, but producers have to grow it to get the industry started.”

 Gibbons added that using approved herbicides for the plant is posing a challenge. To get herbicides approved by the USDA, the company producing the herbicide has to request its approval. Those companies have to see enough demand for an herbicide to be approved. At the moment, SDSU is using exemptions through the state Department of Agriculture for research purposes. Producers can also get exemptions in order to grow the crop, Gibbons said.

Research on this project is expected to take up to a few years. More study is needed in the areas of agronomy, meal, economics and life cycle analysis. Fifteen faculty members, 15 undergraduate and graduate students and even a couple faculty members from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology are working on the project, Gibbons said. These areas of research exist to maximize the nutrition content, perfect growing practices and give an idea of a potential market for carinata.

 For the economics and life cycle analysis, research is conducted to view how carinata financially compares to other crops, the effect on the economy, job market and in general what the effects are of growing carinata in South Dakota.

 Growing carinata could be a possibility for growers in South Dakota as early as 2017. Next spring, 5,000 acres could be grown between 10 to 12 different producers. Gibbons said the plan is to recruit farmers to grow it over a gradual period of time to prepare for commercial growth. This way, experienced producers can educate new producers through field days or conversations in a local coffee shop.

 “Producers with experience growing it can provide answers easier for new producers,” Gibbons said.

 Gibbons has an idea of what success will look like for the project after its completion.

 “I think that’s planting 100,000-plus acres of carinata, having a crushing facility and fuel production facility in South Dakota,” Gibbons said. “It will also be using the meal to feed local cattle, creating jobs and ultimately benefiting farmers and ranchers.”