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Boosting Biofuel Crops With Super Forecasts

Anna King

Northwest farmers are trying to get into the business of biofuels. They know the jets of the future may run on oil from crops like canola seeds. But that’s far from commercially viable. One of the challenges is getting the most out of the crops that can be turned into biofuels. Now, agricultural researchers are studying how drone-like aircraft and even satellites can help make more accurate forecasts than ever.

John Sulik plugs in the batteries to his remote-control helicopter. It’s about the size of a car tire.

Anna King: "That’s it? It look’s like a daddy long legs."

He motions for me to stand back out of the way of the craft’s eight propellers.

John Sulik: "Watch out for these, these are going to kick."

SOUND: Unmanned Aerial System chirps and starts up

Sulik is a postdoctoral scientist at a U.S. Department of Agriculture station in northwest Oregon.

John Sulik: “It’s in the middle of nowhere but we have a lot of gear out here.”

This small copter has one mission. Fly high, and take pictures of crops with a sophisticated camera that can detect six types of light at a time -- things even the human eye can’t see. Mostly, Sulik is looking for yellowness.

John Sulik: “The more intense the yellow signal is from a portion of a field, that means there are more flowers there. The more flowers, means there will be more pods in that specific area there and the more pods there are means there is going to be more seed.”

SOUND: Helicopter revs up

And that’s the point here. Farmers have always had ways to forecast their crop. But this yellowness predictive model could take those forecasts to a whole new level of accuracy. Eventually, satellites might do all this work. Sulik says these super forecasts might some day make biofuels as cheap to make as petroleum products, a goal that has been elusive so far.

John Sulik: “I’m really interested in humans, how can we get the most from our interactions? So we don’t waste anything. And using a resource for energy that absorbs all the carbon that it’s eventually going to emit through combustion – that’s pretty perfect because there is less gasses in the atmosphere.”

All this is important because, airlines are interested in oilseed crops to help them fly with greener fuels. And they need to find a steady supply.

SOUND: Conference mumble sounds

Steve Starr is the head seed buyer for a crushing plant in Warden, Washington, near Moses Lake. I meet him at an oilseed conference in Kennewick. Plenty of large trucks in the parking lot and baseball caps in the crowd. Starr’s plant crushes about 36 semi-truck loads of oilseed a day. He wants to double that within the next three years.

Steve Starr: “Knowing where the canola is and how healthy it is, allows us then to plan ahead and buy earlier if possible. Or if a particular region looks like it will perform poorly in yield, knowing that ahead of time may allows us to buy more canola in a different region.”

It’s not just about predicting the crop and getting a steady supply, it’s about squeezing as much oil out of each tiny seed as possible.

SOUND: Seed crusher hum

That’s a problem that John McCallum is trying to solve back at the USDA lab near Pendleton. He’s a physical science technician.

SOUND: Oil crusher hum

He has a microwave-sized oilseed crusher set up in a bitter cold shop building. He’s using high-tech light sensors too. One is in the seed stream going to the hopper. And the other, analyzes not the oil but the crushed-up byproduct coming out the other side.

John McCallum: “And that’s what we’re trying to do is get that information instantaneously in real time, so we can adjust the press on the go. And we’d eventually like to automate the press.”

Dan Long is this USDA station’s research leader. He says if farmers can reduce the cost of production of oilseed crops and the fuels made from those crops, and …

Dan Long: “ ... make it price competitive with petroleum fuels. Then we will have achieved an ability to travel and grow food economically and efficiently without harming the environment and boosting our economy.”

The scientists at this USDA station hope to roll out their new predictive models and crushing science for farmers, seed processors and refineries in a few years.