Field pennycress, a plant in the Brassica family related to mustards and cabbages, is usually considered a weed. But one feature made it less of a wallflower: its very high oil content, about 50% higher than that of a soybean. After close to a decade of controlled breeding and gene-splicing, the onetime weed is being cultivated as a source for renewable diesel or sustainable aviation fuel.
Most biofuels in the U.S. currently come from corn or soybeans. But as demand for green fuels rises, global food shortages are also threatening. That’s bringing a push for low-carbon fuels that can be made without using edible grains—and spurring research on crops like field pennycress.
“Today the dominant feedstock oil source for [biofuels] would be soybeans, which creates this dynamic of, ‘Are we going to be using our soybean oil and our soybean meal for the fuel market vs. the food and feed markets?” says Mike DeCamp, the chief executive of CoverCress, the company that developed field pennycress. The plant, now also dubbed CoverCress, is aimed for cultivation on farms in harvest offseasons, as a so-called cover crop that can help prevent erosion and provide revenue when primary crops are fallow.
CoverCress is one of three nonfood cover crops that have received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where scientists have been hoping to find oilseed plants that could potentially produce renewable fuels without competing with food sources. The other two—Nuseed Carinata and a plant called camelina marketed by Global Clean Energy Holdings—are also oilseed crops that are grown during the winter fallow period.
Major oil companies have been getting on board. In 2022, BP agreed to buy Nuseed Carinata oil to process or sell as a supply of sustainable biofuels. Chemical and pharmaceutical giant Bayer expanded its stake in CoverCress to a 65% ownership share, with the remainder held by Chevron and agricultural trading house Bunge. Exxon Mobil has a multiyear agreement with Global Clean Energy Holdings to purchase renewable diesel made from camelina. are part of a fabric that can really help in long-term lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the world.”
Read more at The Wall Stree Journal: What Was Once a Weed Could Fuel Jet Engines
Read about how BioGenerator built CoverCress as a founding investor: BioGenerator Case Study