The Peanut Podcast Episode 15: Opportunities for Peanut Oil

Poster of the Episode 15 of The Peanut Podcast.Sep 1, 2023

Peanut oil may be best known as the oil of choice for frying that delicious Thanksgiving turkey or the classic Chick-fil-A sandwich. But changes in the marketplace, climate and economy are leading industry stakeholders to explore the possibility and opportunity of producing more peanut oil in the U.S. In this episode, we talk with National Peanut Board (NPB) President & CEO Bob Parker, Texas A&M researcher Dr. John Cason and Executive Director of the Georgia Peanut Commission (GPC) Don Koehler.

Bob Parker has vast experience in the peanut industry, and he's been exploring and speaking on this topic over the past few months. According to Parker, since the U.S. is a net importer of peanut oil, this is something the industry should take a look at.

“I'm worried about what we're going to do in 10 years if we're producing four-million-ton crops with yields approaching 5000 pounds per acre,” Parker said. “I don't think the answer is for farmers to have to reduce their plantings. I think the answer is to try to develop new markets and increased usage of peanuts, here at home and internationally.”

Currently, the system we have would be inefficient and not cost-effective for producing peanut oil at scale. Parker said peanuts used for crushing in the current system are a byproduct of the shelling process.

“It's a very slow process. It's an expensive process,” Parker said. “We have many, many pieces of equipment in line and we have very expensive sorting equipment. And the peanuts that don't qualify for edible use because maybe they're too small or immature, shriveled or have damage, get diverted out of the system. And those peanuts are then trucked to a crushing plant where they're crushed. The outturn of oil from those peanuts is only about 40 to 43%, which is low. The oil content and in fully mature peanuts that we grow today is probably somewhere around 48%, maybe 50% depending on the variety.”

This shelling process is set up for the edible market, which isn’t efficient when it comes to producing peanut oil. Parker believes we need an intentional and dedicated system to produce more high-quality peanut oil through a cost-efficient process. This would include changes in variety development, transportation and more.

Next up, we spoke with Don Koehler from GPC, who has served as their executive director for 37 years. Koehler said that while we use peanuts in many edible ways, we need to start thinking like George Washington Carver and go beyond just the edible uses.

“I've spent a lot of time looking at this, and I know that the military now is looking at both jet fuel and looking at marine biodiesel,” Koehler said. “So, these are things that are being demanded. They're cleaner burning fuels. We know that we did a study about five years ago on jet fuel with the Department of Defense. We can make jet fuel out of peanut oil really easily. And, and, you know, [Rudolf] Diesel ran the first engine on peanut oil. It wasn't diesel fuel at the time. Peanut oil was the original diesel fuel.”

In addition to getting creative with our uses for peanut, Koehler also thinks it’s important to be innovative with our solutions for challenges that come with peanut oil.

“It may be that we actually have some peanuts that have a higher yield of oil, that maybe aren't suitable for the edible market, but would be absolutely wonderful in an oil market,” Koehler said. “We certainly have to look more at the process, but we know that the process can be done and is actually pretty simple. So, what that leaves then is the system going forward about how do we deliver oil from the farm--because we can extract on the farm--how do we deliver the oil to a processing facility to a refinery?”

Finally, we spoke to Dr. John Cason from Texas A&M. Dr. Cason is currently working with Chevron to develop peanuts with high oil content that could be used as both feedstock and lower-carbon fuel production. This five-year, multi-million-dollar project aims to use peanuts as a renewable feedstock for diesel fuel with a lower carbon intensity.

“I'm the lead on the overall project, but I'm also the lead on the breeding portion of the project,” Dr. Cason said. “And we're trying to increase the oil content of the peanuts. Cultivated peanut has a 46 to 48% oil content, we have some lines currently that are 58% to 60%. There is some variability year to year just due to environmental variation and factors…And we intend to try to breed that as high as possible.”

The next step after getting a higher oil content is to go back in and add Tomato-Spotted Wild resistance, leaf-spot resistance, nematode resistance, etc. Additionally, Dr. Cason is aiming to increase drought tolerance in these peanuts.

“Once we have the oil content where we feel like it's, you know, economically feasible, we're going to try to add drought tolerance, and then we'll come back and add the disease resistances as they come along,” Dr. Cason said. “Chevron is looking at producing peanuts on a dryland basis and bringing areas that currently aren't in production back into production. Or in the case of Texas, where our aquifer levels are declining, we're looking for alternatives so that we can still be in the peanut business.”

Not only does this project possibly bring cleaner fuel to the table, but it’s also a way to bring peanut production back to non-irrigated, rain-fed areas by utilizing this high-oil peanut.

“One great thing about the fuel aspect of it is, you know, there is a huge demand for renewable fuels—any kind of fuel really,” Dr. Cason said. “And so, there's not going to be really any limit to how much we can plant because they can use everything that we produce. And so, that's exciting to me because the more peanuts there are, the happier I am.”

Listen to the full episode here. Learn more about peanut oil from Bob Parker here.

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