Sometimes Dr. Ana Paula Alonso thinks her work stinks, but she sticks with it because she thinks it could make a big impact as a new biofuel. The U.S. Department of Energy is helping her continue that work.
"Some people call it stinky weed," she says, opening the door in her lab to offer a closer view -- and smell -- of her research, "If you go to the greenhouse and open the door, it just grabs you."
Pennycress is an ordinary plant found in all 50 states and all continents in a variety of climates, but it's not a commonly grown crop. That could change, however, if research continues to support its promise as an environmentally and economically promising biofuel.
The U.S. Department of Energy announced in August a $64 million investment in university-led genomics research to develop crops for bioenergy. Of this investment, $2.3 million will go to a project led by Dr. Alonso, associate professor in plant biochemistry and researcher at UNT's BioDiscovery Institute, to continue her exploration of pennycress genes. She hopes to genetically modify it to produce higher yields of oil to improve its efficiency as a crop and a resulting biofuel. Alonso's project is the only one of the 25 new projects that focuses on pennycress.
Dr. Alonso has been researching pennycress as a biofuel crop for some time. Since her first days as a faculty member, she has been interested in plants she describes as "weird," rather than the traditional crops her colleagues have worked with, such as soybean.
"Call it curiosity or craziness, but I never wanted to work with model plants like Arabidopsis," Dr. Alonso says. "There's so much we can learn from other plants. I think the bigger scientific discoveries will come from plants that we are not used to studying."
Pennycress can be grown as a cash crop that fits perfectly between the growing seasons of current crops such as corn and soybean. Also, by blending the pennycress oil with jet fuel, it can improve efficiencies and the impact on the environment -- without affecting food supply.
Winter crops are typically plowed under in the spring to plant new crops, but there are costs associated with planting and plowing under a crop to prepare fields for spring farming.
"If you can get a fuel crop from what you grew as a cover crop, you've driven the economics in a positive say," says Kent Chapman, UNT Regents Professor and director of the BioDiscovery Institute, who is a coinvestigator on the project with Dr. Alonso. "You have improved the sustainability of your farming practice. That's really the big deal with pennycress."
Economically, pennycress makes sense because of when and how it is grown and harvested.
"Pennycress is grown between corn and soybeans," Dr. Chapman says. "Not only do you have this crop that you can harvest at a particular time when no other food is going to be growing, you use the same farm machinery as you do for soybean. It's the same refinery."
Pennycress has been blended with jet fuel with very positive results. The chemical composition makes blends of pennycress oil and jet fuel more efficient than jet fuel alone.
"Pennycress oil blends as a drop-in fuel with jet fuel," Dr. Chapman says. "In a 50-50 mix, it has already been shown that pennycress improves the energy profile of the fuel, so that planes can fly farther on the same amount of fuel."
Pennycress from different regions have yields of seed oil ranging from 29 to 41 percent. In previous U.S. Department of Energy-funded studies, Dr. Alonso identified genes associated with higher oil yields. The current study will look at the function of these genes.
Joining her in this new project are Dr. Chapman and Michigan State professor Dr. Erich Grotewold. Alonso's lab will study the biochemistry of the genes while Dr. Chapman will use mass spectroscopy to look at the structure of the seed, analyzing where and how the oil is stored. The UNT team will use tobacco plants to screen the 43 genes that were identified in the previous study. As the UNT team identifies the more promising genes, Dr. Grotewold will produce transgenic plants to express higher quantities of those genes, with the goal of increasing the oil yield.
Alonso sees the potential of the plant to be grown across the corn belt, pointing out that the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuel Initiative has been advocating for pennycress since 2015.
"According to their calculations, the plant could produce half of the jet fuel that is needed each year just growing it in the corn belt when nothing is growing," Dr. Alonso says. "It's economically and environmentally very friendly. If the aviation industry pushes for more green energy, it will work."