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Texas researchers designing new peanut variety to turn into diesel fuel

Chevron and Texas A&M Agrilife have a signed a multimillion-dollar contract to create a new peanut that can be converted into a eco-friendly renewable fuel source.

STEPHENVILLE, Texas — A smile crept across John Cason's face. "This is the most exciting project I've ever been a part of," he said. 

Texas is famous for its wide-open highways dotted the trucks that carry all the things we rely on to get through the day. Diesel engines are everywhere you look, and Cason is bringing them back to their roots.

“Chevron is interested in starting a new, basically a whole new industry,” Cason stated.

And he believes that industry can sprout from the fields in front of him.

Stephenville is a quiet but growing city of 21,000 approximately 60 miles southwest of Fort Worth. It is the home of Tarleton State University. A couple miles away from campus sits a Texas A&M Agrilife research station that houses A&M’s renowned peanut research center. Cason, an assistant professor of peanut breeding and genetics, started working here as a TSU student and has stayed for more than 25 years, including the last three as the lead breeder.

“We do research here at the center, but we also are statewide,” he explained. “So I have research plots in 13 locations, and about nine different counties that produce peanuts in Texas, that stretches from Gaines County, which is southwest of Lubbock, all the way down to south of San Antonio in Atascosa and Frio County.”

That experience played a role in landing a five-year, multimillion-dollar contract with Chevron to develop new species of peanut that might be suitable to use as a renewable source of diesel fuel.

“The peanuts that we're going to grow are going to be crushed for all, and then taken to refineries to be refined into aviation fuel or renewable diesel,” Cason said.

Chevron is building the capacity to produce 100,000 barrels a day of renewable fuels in its manufacturing system by 2030.

“Chevron is thrilled to team with Texas A&M AgriLife to work to develop the next generation of renewable fuel feedstocks,” Michelle Young, renewables program manager for Chevron Downstream Technology and Services, said in a press release announcing the partnership. “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.”

This project also connects the future of transportation with its past.

“Rudolf Diesel, I don't know if you've ever heard that name, but he created the diesel engine,” Cason went on. “And when he premiered that at the World's Fair in 1900, it was running off of peanut oil. And petroleum kind of came on the scene sometime around that, and plant-based fuels kind of went to the wayside. But, I think they, in the future, I think they're going to become more and more important.”

Most of the peanuts grown in the US are meant to be eaten and fall into four varieties: Spanish, Virginia, Runner, and Valencia. However, Cason said there are also 83 wild varieties that are known to exist. Most of them can be found inside the greenhouses in Stephenville thanks to the explorer’s nature Charles Simpson displayed during his long career in charge of the breeding center. Some of the wild varieties already have a high oil content, but Cason said they cannot be farmed and mass-produced. That is where the A&M team comes in.

“Our hope,” Cason explained, “is we can find something in that wild collection by doing an extensive screening and identify something that's high and use it to cross into a cultivated peanut to really get the percentage up.”

If they can get more oil out of the peanuts, that is good for Chevron. But Cason has 22 team members working with him on this project so they can make it worthwhile for farmers, too.

“Because in my estimation, this could be huge for not only peanut production in Texas, but also just agriculture in general," Cason said.

According to the National Peanut Board, Texas produces nine percent of the nation’s peanuts, which ranks fourth among states. Georgia is the number-one state for peanut production, with approximately half of the country’s output.

“Now they get 48 inches of rain a year,” Cason said of Georgia. “So not quite the same as here. Here in Central Texas, we get 35. Out southwest, (near) Lubbock, they get more like 12.”

Peanut production in Texas requires irrigation, so Cason wants to make this high-performing peanut drought-resistant, as well.

“Most of our peanut production is out southwest of Lubbock, in the Ogallala Aquifer,” he added. "Andd that aquifer is declining each year and becoming, it's becoming pretty critical. And so in the next 20 years, we're facing a water shortage where we're looking at how are we going to maintain the production levels that we have. And in this particular scenario, to get the lowest carbon footprint and to be as environmentally sustainable as possible, we're looking at low input options, and one of those is dryland production.”

According to Texas A&M Agrilife, if peanuts get 27 inches of rain from either rain or irrigation, a plot will produce roughly 5,000 pounds per acre. In 2020, a research plot in Lubbock received fewer than 12 inches of water and produced just 2,800 pounds of edible peanuts per acre.

If they succeed, Cason and his team will have made a crop that could flourish and take root all over the state. Cason believes some farmers could add peanuts to their crop rotation while others restart farms that have since gone dormant.

“When I first found out about this project about a year ago, I mean, I've laid awake many nights since then, thinking about all the possibilities and what this could mean for peanut producers, but also just, you know, Texas Agri in general.”

Cason said, when crossing a wild peanut with a cultivated peanut, it may take three or four years to create a new line and have enough seeds for a farmer to plant. In a project like this, with more documentation and oversight, he suspects it may take between five and seven years to develop the right peanut.

But the possibilities will drive him to keep working until he makes the peanut that gets tractors and tractor trailers moving.

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