University of Nevada researchers look to gumweed as military aviation biofuel feedstock

In Nevada, Glenn Miller is leading the effort in a project at the University of Nevada, Reno to convert roadside gumweed into biofuel, which could help contribute to fuel supplies for the military.

“The plant grindelia squarosa, known as curly top gumweed, has extractable hydrocarbons with the potential use as a biodiesel or biomaterials crop,” Miller, a professor in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, said. “Gumweed is native in Nevada and grows on the side of freeways and, more importantly, is an arid land crop that requires less water than other substitutes like alfalfa. Alfalfa takes five feet of water to grow while gumweed uses no more than a foot of water.”

The collaborators on the project planted the gumweed at the University’s Valley Road Field Laboratory and the Main Station Field Laboratory using minimal water and fertilizer resources. After growing and harvesting the gumweed, it went through biomass processing where it was broken down to liquid that smells like tar.

“We are looking at breaking it down because it uses less water and it’s already acclimated to Nevada conditions,” Miller said. “It would be beneficial generating this arid-land crop because it doesn’t compete with food or animal feed. The primary resource for diesel fuel is soy beans and ethanol for corn which are always in direct competition with food.”

The final biofuel product from the chemical engineering process can produce up to 122 gallons per acre on a biennial basis on the semi-arid lands of Nevada. The crops would require minimum inputs of nutrients and water and have the potential to be converted into jet fuel, which has garnered the interest from the military – the largest fuel consumer in the United States.

Miller said the U.S. Navy is interested in using the biofuel as jet fuel. The project received $500,000 in grant funding from the United States Department of Agriculture and has the potential to supply up to 20 percent of fuel demand for the military.

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