Developing A Good ‘Diesel Nut’

Texas A&M AgriLife researchers, in partnership with Chevron, aim
to develop varieties with higher oil content for lower-carbon fuel production.


John Cason, Texas A&M AgriLife research peanut breeder, will lead the collaboration between university research teams and Chevron to develop a “diesel nut” line of peanuts.
Sam Craft/Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

Peanut oil powered the world’s first diesel engine when it was premiered by Rudolf Diesel at the 1900 World Exposition in Paris. Now, a collaboration between Chevron and Texas A&M AgriLife is reviving the use of peanuts as a renewable feedstock for diesel fuel with a lower carbon intensity.

The energy expended to produce a product is carbon intensity. This measurement includes production inputs such as water, pesticide and fertilizer and how much net carbon that process adds to the atmosphere. Reduced carbon intensity is important in developing sustainable agricultural practices.

Hope For A Dryland Option

The five-year, multi-million-dollar project will be led by John Cason, Texas A&M peanut breeder in Stephenville. Development of the “diesel nut” will be multi-pronged and will include estimating economic feasibility, advancing existing high-oil peanut germplasm and developing new, low-input peanut lines for the renewable diesel industry.

John Cason talks with Charles Simpson, Texas A&M AgriLife professor emeritus, in a peanut greenhouse in Stephenville where the “diesel nut” lines originated.

Co-leaders on the project are Luis Ribera, Extension service economist and director of Texas A&M’s Center for North American Studies, Bryan-College Station; Bill McCutchen, TAMU Research and Extension center director, Stephenville; and David Baltensperger, head of the Texas A&M department of soil and crop sciences.

Cliff Lamb, director of AgriLife Research, Bryan-College Station, says the collaboration with Chevron gives scientists a chance to develop peanuts that have a greater oil content and are better adapted to dryer climates — ultimately creating a more resilient agricultural system.

“We hope these new varieties will offer producers a profitable dryland or limited irrigation crop option,” Lamb says. “What makes this project truly exciting is that it takes the entire agricultural value chain into account, using cutting-edge research to create an abundant, affordable and high-quality product that works to protect natural resources, improve health and support economies in Texas and beyond. We appreciate the support of this work by Chevron.”

For Marginal Land, Limited Water

Chevron is building the capacity to produce 100,000 barrels a day of renewable fuels in its manufacturing system by 2030. Securing a reliable source of lower lifecycle carbon intensity renewable feedstocks is a priority for the company.

“Chevron is thrilled to team with Texas A&M AgriLife to work to develop the next generation of renewable fuel feedstocks,” says Michelle Young, renewables program manager for Chevron Downstream Technology and Services. “This collaboration has the potential to deliver high-quality oil to produce renewable fuels while providing peanut farmers in the U.S. with another way to maximize the value of their operations.”

“The Texas Peanut Producers Board is excited to support the ‘diesel nut’ project and views it as one more tool for farmers in Texas,” says Shelly Nutt, Texas Peanut Producers Board executive director.

“Peanut farmers have long realized the value of using peanuts not only as a cash crop, but also as a crop that adds nutrients to the soil, creating a sustainable production system,” Nutt says. “With the success of this project, farmers could add a low-input, high-yielding ‘diesel nut’ with the ability to grow on marginal land or with limited water availability, into their rotation program and would not be competing with the high-quality, edible peanut market the board has worked so hard to achieve.”

Oil Content Seven Times Soybeans

Currently, food-grade peanut varieties have an oil content of approximately 48%. However, several high-oil breeding lines have around 55-60% oil content. With those yields, “diesel nut” peanuts could yield as much as 350 gallons of oil per acre, compared to soybeans’ current oil yields of approximately 25 to 50 gallons per acre.

AgriLife peanut breeders, including Michael Baring, Bryan-College Station; Charles Simpson, Stephenville; and Mark Burow, Lubbock, began working on high-oil breeding lines 15 years ago. Cason says four of the most promising lines were selected to begin studying the agronomics and yields.

“We also are developing new crosses and screening germplasm, including the wild germplasm collection maintained by Simpson,” Cason says. “Our breeders are searching for germplasm with even higher oil content to develop the most elite cultivars that will also perform in dryland conditions and produce the highest oil content.”

Creating A Robust Renewable Option

Cason and the team see possibilities to bring peanut production back to non-irrigated, rain-fed areas utilizing this high-oil germplasm. They will breed into these lines the qualities of improved disease and drought tolerance as well as continuing to increase oil content.

He says major advances in disease resistance have already been made in food-grade peanut varieties, such as resistance to nematodes from wild species, Sclerotinia blight and tomato spotted wilt virus. These traits can now be incorporated into the “diesel nut” lines to create a robust renewable fuel feedstock.

“With our edible breeding lines, we’ve also been looking at drought tolerance, but not on any of the lines producing higher oil,” Cason says. “Now we’ve pulled everything out and started planting in Vernon and Stephenville and will grow some under dryland and irrigation. We are treating this year as kind of a pilot year.”

A peanut crop usually needs 27 inches of moisture from irrigation and rain to produce about 5,000 pounds per acre of high-quality peanuts. In contrast, the drought-tolerant research used only 7 to 12 inches of rain to produce about 2,800 pounds of edible peanuts per acre in 2020.

“One thing that will help the ‘diesel nut’ succeed is that when you don’t irrigate a peanut, you run the risk of aflatoxin, which can be devastating to food-grade peanuts,” Cason says. “But that won’t matter when the crop is being crushed for biofuel, so regardless of how much moisture, if the grower can grow something, they can market it.”

The goal now is to adapt “diesel nut” lines to new growing regions across Texas and the U.S. where the crop can perform under limited irrigation and dryland production. This, coupled with the development of best management practices for crop production systems and the logistics of harvest, transport and storage will be necessary to rapidly advance the production of renewable diesel feedstocks.

Other Project Components

A large contingent of Texas A&M AgriLife personnel will be working on the project, including agronomists, breeders, plant microbiologists, crop physiologists, biochemists, soil scientists, economists and crop modelers in College Station and at research and Extension centers in Rolling Plains, South Plains and South Texas.

Ribera will lead the development of risk-based, comprehensive enterprise budgets focused on the peanuts’ oil yield, reliability and viability as a renewable diesel feedstock. His team will include modelers who will assess transportation, shelling and crushing infrastructure as well as regulatory constraints to come up with the baseline carbon intensity.

“When considering a renewable fuel source, every energy input into the production and processing of the peanuts until the fuel reaches the pumps will be important to determining the carbon intensity,” Baltensperger says. “We look at energy in for energy out and which is most carbon considerate. We want the carbon intensity baseline to be as low as possible if we are to optimize peanuts where it still makes sense to produce oil for fuel.”

All The Agronomics Considered 

McCutchen says this project could bring peanut production back to areas that previously grew the crop but ran out of water. The agronomic side of the project will concentrate on peanut lines that can be grown on marginal lands and still give high per-acre vegetable oil yields.

The team of cropping system specialists will also develop cropping systems that optimize growth, harvest and yield for “diesel nuts.” They will evaluate conservation tillage, as research in peanut-producing regions of Texas has shown that soil organic carbon increased by combining conservation tillage with cover crops.

Rotational systems, cover crops, tillage and fertilizer practices will be evaluated under dryland and limited irrigation to create a cropping system with the lowest possible carbon footprint. High-throughput greenhouse assays will be used to find novel endophytes, which will be important for promoting drought tolerance and overall plant health.

When enough information is available and advances are made, Emi Kimura, AgriLife Extension state peanut specialist, Vernon, will lead the outreach to inform producers about the research outcomes. PG

Article by Kay Ledbetter, Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

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