Tom Schenk, a farm land broker by trade and now business development director for a Bioenergy firm, was so impressed with the “energy tree” that he has been involved in establishing test groves across Texas to determine the tree’s adaptability to the Texas environment.

“While we are in the early stages of our research and development in Texas, we are most pleased with results. Pongamia is tolerant to saline and alkaline soils, it can withstand harsh climates and marginal land and is one of the few nitrogen-fixing trees producing seeds containing 30 to 40 percent oil,” he says.

Schenk has been instrumental in helping to establish a grove of some 30,000 trees near San Isidro, Texas, west of Zapata and north of Edinburg in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. In addition, groves of pongamia have been planted near El Campo. He says industry interest in Texas has been sparked as well as evidenced by Formosa Plastics leasing land to test plant the trees.

“This is a hearty tree with a 30-foot tap root. It can tolerate extreme temperatures and harsh sunlight, and the seed that it develops can be harvested with a nut shaker, and a peanut sheller and soybean crusher do a good job preparing the seed for biofuel application,” he says.

The seed cake from production can be used as a high nitrogen fertilizer and when blended with soybean is a high protein animal feed.

“Since this legume fixes nitrogen in soil, we discovered early on that grasses beneath the trees last year were lush and green, and cows from an adjacent pasture had broken through a fence and were grazing on it at a time when almost all forage had been grazed out or destroyed from the drought, so we’re talking about an energy crop that can offer added benefit to growers,” he said.

Since pongamia fixes nitrogen in the soil, Schenk says growers could intercrop with faster growing grasses before the canopy eventually restricts sunlight exposure.

Pongamia seed oil as a bio- fuel has physical properties very similar to conventional diesel. Emission properties, however, are cleaner for biofuel than for conventional diesel. It has no polyaromatic compounds and features reduced toxic smoke and soot emissions. In addition, the same oil is used as fuel for cooking and the oil is also used as a lubricant, water-paint binder, pesticide, and in soap making and tanning industries in other countries.

In India, where the tree is extensively used as an energy crop, dried leaves are used as an insect repellent in stored grains. The press cake, when applied to the soil, has pesticidal value, particularly against nematodes.

“Looking at the current policy for promotion of biofuels, pongamia seems to be more promising than other feedstock and we’re hopeful our trial will demonstrate its adaptation to large scale production in Texas,” Schenk adds.

As with any other tree crop, pongamia requires 4 to 5 years before the tree is mature enough to be commercially harvested. However, it is also a fast growing tree and tree life can extend far beyond 50 years.

“The advantages are many and the results are promising,” Schenk says.

Schenk is affiliated with Terviva Bioenergy as director of business development, a bioenergy firm promoting the product nationwide as an alternative energy crop. More information is available at http://terviva.com/index.php.