Alternative Oilseeds for Sustainable, High-Quality Biodiesel

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2008: $127,635.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Frederick Iutzi
Western Illinois University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: canola


  • Crop Production: double cropping
  • Energy: bioenergy and biofuels
  • Farm Business Management: value added
  • Production Systems: general crop production


    The outcomes of a 24-month project to investigate production of alternative oilseed crops to make high-value biodiesel products are reviewed. The on-station winter oilseed agronomy research component of the project was very successful, exceeding goals to provide variety trial information on winter canola cultivars for Illinois conditions. Significantly fewer on-farm trials were performed than planned due to logistical problems and institutional transitions. The planned canola biodiesel production pilot was not possible due to the closure of the biodiesel facility cooperator in the project. A very successful on-farm field day was held, and four separate farmer-led and university-led research and commercialization projects at one farm and two universities were created or greatly accelerated due to this project. Agronomically, the research results confirm that it is possible to raise winter canola in the central latitudes of Illinois, but that further research on the genetic and management bases of winter survival would pay dividends.


    The work plan proposed for this project was the result of a confluence of four key trends in the agricultural sector:
    (1) Biofuels, including biodiesel, are playing a large and rapidly increasing role as end-uses for agricultural products and as drivers of rural land use decisions. This trend presents clear challenges and opportunities for farmers and rural communities.
    (2) Major agricultural sustainability issues continue to exist in the NCR, and are interacting with and being amplified by shifts in farming practices associated with biofuel production. Especially in the face of elevated commodity prices, proponents of more sustainable cropping systems will need to find leverage points to influence the situation.
    (3) The biodiesel sector is experiencing a stage in its expansion where fuel quality is coming under close scrutiny. End-users are seeking reassurance that commodity biodiesel will meet minimum performance standards, while opportunities to increase profitability by introducing high-quality, differentiated fuel products may also be at hand.
    (4) New oilseed crop options are entering the stage. Research at regional institutions has demonstrated that winter canola can achieve dramatic seed and oil yields in the Midwest, while oil from canola and related oilseeds offers distinctive functional characteristics as a biodiesel feedstock. These crops may also provide important potential agroecosystem services if added to corn-soybean rotations. If the emerging biodiesel industry's requirements for fuel quality and high feedstock volume can be matched to crops that also provide important sustainability benefits, a unique opportunity for crop diversification may be at hand. And if developed in a conscientious, integrated manner, biodiesel production with diversified feedstocks could play an important role in the effort to simultaneously improve economic, ecological, and social aspects of sustainability in the NCR.

    Project objectives:

    In the short term, participants and others will gain knowledge necessary to evaluate and implement alternative biodiesel feedstock strategies. Farmers and processors will strengthen relationships necessary to collaborate and engage in joint ventures.

    In the intermediate term, stakeholders will use new knowledge and relationships to build field-to-fuel tank business relationships and realize increased profitability and equity. Participating farmers will use lessons learned to mentor other farmers interested in alternative oilseed production. Across the region, farmers, processors, and researchers will apply increased capabilities for collaborative inquiry and action to address multiple sustainability issues. Recent confluence of concerns over biodiesel fuel quality and the sustainability of biofuel production will make the project's outputs particularly timely.

    In the long term, diversified cropping and biofuel production systems will contribute to ecological sustainability and community well-being across the North Central Region (NCR).

    This project will bring together farmers, university researchers, public sector sustainable development workers, biodiesel industry personnel, and the general public in an effort to crop production, oilseed processing and logistics, biofuel conversion, and interactions in the supply chain in a coordinated manner. Direct participants are spread across two states in the NCR, and outreach and collaborative interactions are expected to reach all states bordering on Illinois. The project will include On-Farm Oilseed Research and On-Station Oilseed Research components, in which a variety of winter brassica crops will be evaluated for agronomic and biodiesel characteristics in on-station and on-farm settings. It will also include a Canola Biodiesel Production Pilot component where field-scale canola seed production and conversion to biodiesel in a commercial facility will be demonstrated. A conceptual map of the project (Figure 1) demonstrates how six on-farm trial sites (pictures of oilseed plots; only four of six depicted), two winter canola production sites (pictures of canola production), a biodiesel plant (oil droplet logo), and an agricultural energy business (red and black company logo) clustered around a university research station (Western Illinois University logo) would comprise the project.

    On-Farm Oilseed Reserach
    • On-farm trials will occur on six cooperating farms each of the project years.
      The trials will evaluate winter oilseeds, such as winter canola, cold-hardy mustard and rapeseed cultivars, camelina, and field pennycress.
      Production observations and notes will be taken and yields will be determined.
      Oilseed, oil, and biodiesel compositional and quality analyses will be performed at Western Illinois University (WIU) and a cooperating biodiesel plant.
      One on-farm field day will be held each year.
    On-Station Oilseed Research
    • On-station evaluations of winter oilseeds will occur at WIU for two years.
      Crops evaluated will include winter canola (10 cultivars), winter rapeseed and mustard (2-4 cultivars), camelina (1-2 cultivars), and field pennycress (1 population).
      Production observations and notes will be taken and yields will be determined.
      Oilseed, oil, and biodiesel compositional and quality analyses will be performed at WIU and a cooperating biodiesel plant.
      One on-station field day will be held each year.
    Canola Biodiesel Production Pilot
    • Cooperating farmers will grow and harvest 80 a. of winter canola.
      Canola seed will be crushed and the oil degummed at a toll crushing facility, and the oil delivered to a cooperating biodiesel plant in Keokuk, IA.
      Biodiesel plant staff will convert the canola oil to biodiesel, conduct quality analyses, and document production costs.
      One public event will be held at the biodiesel plant in the second year of the project.
    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.