Pongamia tree is another biofuel source

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Another biofuel crop has come to the forefront as a California company, TerViva Inc., has been establishing acreages of the tree crop pongamia (Pongamia pinnata) in Texas, Florida, Arizona and Hawaii.

“Pongamia is an ancient tree that is native to Australia and India. It is frost tolerant, but not freeze-proof. It also happens to be a legume,” claims an agricultural investment company, United Country Real Estate, in a short news item run in the Global AgDevelopment newsletter.

“The tree yields a generous annual nut crop that is harvested with conventional shakers, such as those used by almond and other nut growers. The shelled nut contains a large seed pod resembling a lima bean. That seed has approximately a 40 percent oil content that can be easily refined into high-grade biodiesel, biojet fuel, or even other high-demand biochemicals like oleic acid. The remaining seedcake can then be used as a high-protein animal feed or a high-nitrogen fertilizer. And because the tree is a legume, it is fixing nitrogen so the soils are improved and pasture grasses can even be intercropped for cattle grazing. The tree has a productive life of well over 50 years,” the article explained.

The author’s calculations are that pongamia yields about 400 gallons of oil per acre. Similar to jatropha, the pongamia tree/legume is another plant that can “thrive not only on marginal soils (as in its native homeland) where food crops struggle for yield, but it can also be a perfect replacement crop for the thousands of acres of abandoned Florida citrus land.”

Additional investigation of pongamia shows that the tree grows as large as any ornamental tree and increases its seed, and, therefore, its oil production during its original 15 years of growth. The tree will be alive for about 100 years, but it is expected to stop producing an economical amount of seed after 60 years.

Jatropha has received some attention for being a biofuel crop to grow on marginal warm-weather land, but various sources about pongamia claim it will out produce jatropha in oil per acre. 

TerViva reportedly has a goal of establishing projects of at least 500 acres and wants to work with investors to establish nearly turnkey projects. Receiving “elite genetic” pongamia nursery stock and processing of the nuts are apparently part of the contracting between TerViva and investors who set up groves of the tree. It is also alluded to that pongamia groves will respond to good management similar to what a citrus grower would know how to provide.

“Because this is a tree crop, yields will not be commercially harvestable until at least the fourth year. However, converting a barren acre of land to an acre planted in pongamia with irrigation improvements could arguably double the valuation of that acre in the first year,” contends the company in the investment article.

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