Is a new crop with real bang ready for takeoff?

MORRIS -- The friendly farm fields of Minnesota could replace oil fields in hostile lands as the source of fuel for America's military's fighter jets, if a research project now under way near Morris succeeds.

MORRIS -- The friendly farm fields of Minnesota could replace oil fields in hostile lands as the source of fuel for America's military's fighter jets, if a research project now under way near Morris succeeds.

The project is looking at whether cuphea -- a flowering plant native to the U.S. -- can be raised and processed into the military jet fuel known as JP-8.

"There is very good potential with cuphea for that,'' said Russ Gesch, plant physiologist with the North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory at the Swan Lake site near Morris. The laboratory is working on the project with the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, N.D. Gesch and Ted Aulich, a process chemist with the research center, described the project during a field day Thursday at Swan Lake.

The project is one of three being funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a domestic source for military jet fuel. General Electric and UOP, a division of Honeywell, are working on the others.

Gesch has been raising cuphea for nearly seven years at the Swan Lake site, but not because he had expectations of producing jet fuel.


He believes that cuphea has the potential to take off on its own as a significant oilseed crop for Midwest farmers. Largely, that's because its oil is so different from that of soybeans, sunflowers or canola. Cuphea produces oil that has medium-length chains of carbon molecules, like those of coconut and palm oil. Cuphea oil can readily replace the imported tropical oils in a wide variety of products.

The oil derived by crushing cuphea seeds is very well-suited for use in a wide range of personal care and cosmetic products, soaps and detergents, and especially, as an engine lubricant. It has exceptional cold-temperature stability and temperature range, according to Gesch.

Cuphea has attributes as a plant that also make it worth considering as a crop, according to Gesch. Although cuphea seeds are small -- 3 millimeters, they contain 30 to 35 percent oil. Soybeans contain 20 percent.

Cuphea can be planted in rotation with traditional crops like corn, soybeans and wheat.

It poses no invasive threat. The 260 known species of cuphea are native to the Americas. Many common herbicides can be used to control it.

Yet what might matter most of all is the invisible: those medium-length carbon molecules found naturally in its oil. Aulich said jet fuel is comprised of medium-length carbon molecules too. That's what makes it possible for the fuel to remain liquid at a wide range in temperatures, from minus 40 degrees to plus 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

It's possible to make a synthetic jet fuel with these same qualities from coal or even soybean oil. But both of these sources require a greater input of energy to convert them into jet fuel than cuphea, according to Aulich.

Turning cuphea into a jet fuel is one thing; the real challenge comes with developing cuphea as a commercial crop, according to Gesch. It has been grown commercially in the country only since 2005, and on an extremely limited basis.


He began his research with a teaspoon of seeds. He now has cuphea planted on 130 acres. That makes the Swan Lake site one of the largest sources for cuphea seeds in the country.

Gesch said there are challenges to overcome if the plant is to find widespread commercial acceptance. Seed shattering, indeterminate flowering and a lack of drought resistance are the main concerns, he said.

With intensive management, the plant can produce 1,200 pounds of oil per acre. Farm trials have shown inconsistency, however, with yields ranging from as little as 50 pounds to 700 pounds per acre.

Gesch is optimistic that selective breeding and further research can improve cuphea, no different than the way soybeans have been dramatically improved over the last 50 years. A researcher in Georgia reportedly has cultivated a male sterile cuphea, opening up the possibility of hybridization as well.

A big step toward launching cuphea as a viable crop could be its cultivation for jet fuel. Aulich and Gesch believe it would not be unrealistic to use cuphea to provide at least a portion of the 4.8 billion gallons of JP-8 jet fuel the U.S. military consumes every year.

Their research project is four months into an 18-month schedule. The researchers must produce 60 liters of JP-8 fuel from cuphea oil, demonstrate the ability to reach 90 percent efficiency in its conversion to fuel and develop a plan to commercialize it.

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