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Morris lab part of USDA grant to research renewable jet fuel for U.S. military

MORRIS - Scientists in Morris may be helping the United States military increase their use of biofuels thanks to a research grant from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy.

The $7 million grant - which is spread among a number of United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service offices, university, and industry partners over the next four years - will be used to research ways to make biofuels a more economically viable option for the U.S. military.

Although there are some processes that are commercially available to use oil from oilseed crops in jet fuel, the "price isn't yet competitive" with traditional fuels, said Russ Gesch, research plant physiologist at the North Central Soil Conservation Research Lab in Morris.

Approximately 10 percent of the cost of oil made from oilseed plants - canola, mustard, rapeseed and camelina, for example - comes from the conversion technology itself. The remaining 90 percent of the cost is the feedstock cost.

"One of our biggest tasks is going to be [researching] what can we use as far as oilseed crops, where can we grow it, and how can we do it economically so it brings that feedstock price down to ultimately bring the fuel cost down," said Gesch.

Three of the major research areas will focus on streamlining the oil refinement process; breeding the feedstock plants to improve oil characteristics to make them more useful for biofuels; and growing species of oilseed to find out which types are best suited for different environments.

Morris scientists will be trying to determine which species grow best in our area, which will help growers optimize yields and therefore lower the biofuel price, said Gesch. Local scientists will measure how environmental factors like water and temperature impact each species and what management practices work best.

Scientists at other labs in the area where oilseed plants grow best, the northwestern quarter of the United States, will be conducing similar research projects.

"The awesome part about [the project] is that it's integrated," said Gesch. "It's all one big project, of course, to try to create a commercially viable, reliable, large-scale source of oil for making this jet fuel. How we do that, it could vary from region to region as far as the crop that's grown and the cropping techniques that are used."

Another aspect of the project here in Morris is to recommend best management practices to keep the input costs low and allow farmers to make money growing these crops. Fertilizer, weed and pest control, and disease protection all add cost to the feedstock and play into the cost of biofuels.

Although there are currently commercial processes and uses for biofuels, the U.S. military is the targeted end-user of the results of this research.

"The U.S. military wants to wean itself off of depending on foreign sources of petroleum for their supplies, especially in times of war," said Gesch. "If they can have a domestic source they can rely on, in case the spigots get turned off, that's huge for them."