MANDAN, N.D. — North Dakota canola could become a fuel source for military and commercial jets.
In 2009, the U.S. Navy set a goal to have half of its energy needs served by non-oil sources by 2020. The Federal Aviation Administration wants 1 billion gallons of biofuel by 2018.
Since late 2011, scientists in North Dakota and across the country have set out to make that a reality.
The Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in Mandan is one of eight locations testing different plant products for biofuels. The focus here has been on oilseeds such as canola, rapeseed camelina and mustard — "all crops that grow well in wheat-producing areas," soil scientist Dave Archer said.
The scientists at Great Plains have just finished their first year of field trials and are waiting for the second round of fall-planted canola to come up, Archer said.
The oilseed varieties are being judged on their economic and environmental impacts, he said. Researchers are trying to find varieties not used for food that fit into existing crop rotations and that improve soil quality.
The plants also need to be drought-tolerant and able to grow in areas where traditional oilseeds don't do as well.
Finding a variety that will fit all the necessary characteristics will increase the market for farmers and provide an economic benefit to local processing facilities.
"It will certainly help the state," said Barry Coleman, executive director of the Northern Canola Growers.
Coleman said canola is used for biodiesel production in Velva. If the crop could be used as a jet fuel as well, he said, it would gain popularity among farmers.
If canola varieties more suited for drier climates, like the variety brassica juncea, could be used for jet fuel, Coleman predicted the state would see more expansion of the crop into western North Dakota and eastern Montana.
The military would have the capability to sign large contracts, giving farmers reassurance of a place to market their crop.
The increased market also would ensure better prices for growers.
Coleman said farmers typically get 25 cents per pound for canola seed. That amounts to somewhere between $400 and $700 in gross revenue per acre.
About 1 million acres of canola are grown in the state each year.
Archer said he has studied varieties that are just as profitable but he thinks farmers are going to want something more profitable than their existing crop to start planting different varieties.
The military and commercial jet companies also don't want to pay a premium for biofuel. They want a cost similar to what they currently pay to fuel their aircraft.
"It's a balancing act. Prices have to be high enough for farmers but low enough for processors," Archer said.
Coleman said if a variety could be found, he thinks farmers would step up and fill the market need.
There are already about 1.8 gallons of biodiesel produced each year using canola and the production ramped up in the last four to five years. Between 5 percent and 10 percent of the canola grown in North Dakota goes for biodiesel production.
Archer said to get the product to market faster, research into converting oilseeds to jet fuel is already being done at the same time as field research.
The process of making jet fuel is different from that of making biodiesel. The refining process is more similar to turning crude oil into jet fuel, Archer said.
The government's main interest in oilseeds is they require less processing in the conversion process, he said. The seeds also can be crushed into oil locally, reducing transport costs.
The military wants a fuel it won't have to blend with jet fuel. Archer said current biofuels are certified for a 50/50 blend.
Oilseeds have proven the most cost-effective feedstock for biofuel so far when compared to biomass sources like algae and wood pulp.
"The challenge is the edible uses for these oils will always be competition," Archer said.
The non-edible varieties haven't had as much breeding research as the edible varieties have, so they still produce lower yields. Ethanol did not face the same problem when it was being developed because the varieties of corn grown for ethanol production were the same varieties already being grown.
Archer said there have been promising results from the first round of field trials. He found one non-edible variety that would do as well as edibles, but that was only at the research farm in Mandan. That variety did not do as well at other testing sites across the western U.S.
Archer said he and the other scientists also are trying to remedy production challenges, like weed control, in their field trials. They have this growing season and the next left to complete their research.