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Australian energy tree may carry biofuel bounty for US growers

Recognizing the need to limit acres for biofuel and a desire to lower the cost of biofuel production and increase yields, farmers have been looking at Australian pongamia trees. Pongamias produce seeds containing 30 to 40 percent oil, and are becoming a popular oilseed choice for biofuel production, capturing the attention of U.S. growers.

As global petroleum resources decline and the cost of imported oil escalates, agriculture producers around the world have been researching and testing food and non-food biofuels as an alternative to meet the growing demand for energy.

Biodiesel is experiencing a historic surge worldwide and a rapid expansion in production capacity is being observed not only in developed countries such as Germany, Italy, France, and the United States but also in developing countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Indonesia. Interest in and expansion of renewable fuel production has been fostered by mandates and financial incentives offered by governments, like the Obama Administration’s Renewable Fuels Standard requiring the production of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022.

The push for biofuels got its big start with President Bush's plan for biofuels from crops in 2007, and ethanol is now big business. By 2009 just over 25 percent of U.S. grain crops was being used to create ethanol for cars. But while the idea of crops-for-fuel is not new, research and experience is slowing interest in ethanol produced from corn, sorghum, sugarcane, and other traditional food and non-food crops as more attention is being focused on oilseed as a better, lower-cost alternative that uses less land traditionally dedicated to food crops.

Recognizing the need to limit acres for biofuel and a desire to lower the cost of biofuel production and increase yields, potential growers have been taking at look at alternative oilseed crops including sunflower, canola, flax, soybean, castor and camelina. In India and Australia, a legume, Pongamiapinnata, a tree that produces seeds containing 30 to 40 percent oil, is becoming a popular oilseed choice for biofuel production and has captured the attention of U.S. growers.


Tom Schenk, a farm land broker by trade and now business development director for a Bioenergy firm, was so impressed with the “energy tree” that he has been involved in establishing test groves across Texas to determine the tree’s adaptability to the Texas environment.

“While we are in the early stages of our research and development in Texas, we are most pleased with results. Pongamia is tolerant to saline and alkaline soils, it can withstand harsh climates and marginal land and is one of the few nitrogen-fixing trees producing seeds containing 30 to 40 percent oil,” he says.

Schenk has been instrumental in helping to establish a grove of some 30,000 trees near San Isidro, Texas, west of Zapata and north of Edinburg in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. In addition, groves of pongamia have been planted near El Campo. He says industry interest in Texas has been sparked as well as evidenced by Formosa Plastics leasing land to test plant the trees.

“This is a hearty tree with a 30-foot tap root. It can tolerate extreme temperatures and harsh sunlight, and the seed that it develops can be harvested with a nut shaker, and a peanut sheller and soybean crusher do a good job preparing the seed for biofuel application,” he says.

The seed cake from production can be used as a high nitrogen fertilizer and when blended with soybean is a high protein animal feed.

“Since this legume fixes nitrogen in soil, we discovered early on that grasses beneath the trees last year were lush and green, and cows from an adjacent pasture had broken through a fence and were grazing on it at a time when almost all forage had been grazed out or destroyed from the drought, so we’re talking about an energy crop that can offer added benefit to growers,” he said.

Since pongamia fixes nitrogen in the soil, Schenk says growers could intercrop with faster growing grasses before the canopy eventually restricts sunlight exposure.

Pongamia seed oil as a bio- fuel has physical properties very similar to conventional diesel. Emission properties, however, are cleaner for biofuel than for conventional diesel. It has no polyaromatic compounds and features reduced toxic smoke and soot emissions. In addition, the same oil is used as fuel for cooking and the oil is also used as a lubricant, water-paint binder, pesticide, and in soap making and tanning industries in other countries.

In India, where the tree is extensively used as an energy crop, dried leaves are used as an insect repellent in stored grains. The press cake, when applied to the soil, has pesticidal value, particularly against nematodes.

“Looking at the current policy for promotion of biofuels, pongamia seems to be more promising than other feedstock and we’re hopeful our trial will demonstrate its adaptation to large scale production in Texas,” Schenk adds.

As with any other tree crop, pongamia requires 4 to 5 years before the tree is mature enough to be commercially harvested. However, it is also a fast growing tree and tree life can extend far beyond 50 years.

“The advantages are many and the results are promising,” Schenk says.

Schenk is affiliated with Terviva Bioenergy as director of business development, a bioenergy firm promoting the product nationwide as an alternative energy crop. More information is available at

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