"I'm excited to announce that Western Illinois University has been awarded $10 million," WIU Agriculture Professor Win Phippen said before being interrupted by applause from administrators, politicians, and others who gathered for Tuesday morning's announcement in the University Union's Brattain Lounge on the Macomb campus.
The federal grant will be used to study the use of the cover crop Pennycress as a biofuel alternative for aviation. Phippen said Pennycress produces a very small seed that will be crushed for its oil.
“We could go into the (automotive) biodiesel markets. But there are several other crops that can fill that need. And so the aviation fuel is a more specific market we can target,” said Phippen.
“When you launch a new crop you’ve got to have an angle. (Aviation fuel) is sort of one of the angles we’re taking.”
Phippen came to Western in 2000. He said he has been studying Pennycress for 10 years. For this project, he will lead a team that includes researchers from Illinois State University, the University of Minnesota, the Ohio State University, and the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
What is Pennycress?
Phippen said Pennycress had long been considered a weed in the Midwest landscape. He said now it’s used as a cover crop. It is planted in the fall after corn is harvested. He said Pennycress starts flowering in early April and is harvested before soybeans are planted in the spring.
Phippen said cover crops such as Pennycress are grown during the off-season to provide what he called “eco-system services” that prevent soil and wind erosion.
“Instead of just leaving bare, dusty ground that can be blown away or eroded away by water, the cover crop helps hold that nutrient ground together,” he said.
“Also, after corn (is grown), there’s always a lot of leftover nitrogen in the soil. (Pennycress) is what we call a nitrogen scavenging crop. It’s going to use up all that excess nitrogen, use it to produce the oil seed, and prevent it from being washed into our water supply.”
He said Pennycress also helps out pollinators – especially honeybees -- because it’s one of the few plants that flowers in early April.
Students Involved in the Research
Claudia Bland, a senior Ag Sciences major from Bloomington-Normal, said she has been working for Dr. Phippen since she was a freshman.
“I’ve been doing harvesting, planting, watering, fertilizing – everything for the Pennycress project that he already had going,” Bland said.
“So this will just be an extension of what I’ve already been doing but now on a bigger scale since we have this grant.”
She knew of Pennycress before coming to WIU but didn’t know it might be used as an alternative crop. “I knew there were seeds in there but they are very small. I never thought something so small could have such a huge impact on farmers and the biofuel industry.”
Bland said she is “super-excited” about the project even though she will soon graduate. She said she is looking forward to mentoring the freshmen and sophomores who will be working on the project in the coming years.
Phippen said this is a rare opportunity for students to be exposed to the introduction of a new crop. He said they will be involved in the daily research, the Pennycress project will be integrated into the courses he teaches, and summer internships will be offered at WIU and the other schools.
“It’s exciting. And they get to see it from the beginning all the way to the end.”