How Research at the Peoria Ag Lab Has Impacted Decades of Innovations

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Peoria research center

Dr. Terry Isbell, researches and studies field pennycress; Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

In the heart of Illinois, scientific successes range from the mass development of life-saving penicillin to the discovery of field pennycress, potentially Illinois’ next big crop.

The historical innovations happen at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria. There, this massive facility existed long before Interstate 74 that borders it.

Better known as the Ag Lab to locals, the center ranks as the largest USDA agricultural research facility in square footage, manpower and its $30 million budget. It employs about 250 scientists and support staff who discover agricultural-based solutions to future problems in the realm of farming, food safety, public health and the environment.

Their research impacts most people daily. This lab developed Super Slurper, the ultra-absorbent starch material in disposable diapers. It created xanthan gum, a thickening agent in almost every salad dressing. In the 1940s, scientists discovered how to mass-produce penicillin that has saved millions of lives. And the lab drove the adoption of the soybean, now our state’s and nation’s No. 2 crop.

Likewise, the Peoria Ag Lab receives credit for lesser-known discoveries, like the plant-based automotive lubricant that took 25 years to take off in the market.

“We’re not working for today,” says Terry Isbell, a biofuels research chemist at the laboratory. “We’re working into the future, and sometimes we get ahead of the curve of what people will realize they will ever need. We’re working on problems that most people don’t know exist.”

Dr. Sean Liu researches and studies soybeans; Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

Economic Potential in Pennycress

The Peoria Ag Lab pioneered the discovery of field pennycress, an off-season crop high in oil content. Isbell says pennycress has big potential to produce jet fuel.

The crop grows from fall to spring, when most Illinois land lies in waiting for spring planting of corn or soybeans.

As a result, field pennycress creates opportunity for a second income with negligible impacts on a farmer’s primary crop. It also offers benefits as a cover crop, which is a crop specifically planted in rotation with row crops to improve soil and water quality.

Pennycress has its hurdles, primarily with establishment at planting and the timing of harvest. Economics play a major factor, too, as ongoing low petroleum prices decrease its demand as a biofuel. More crop development research and fuel price swings can change that.

“I see a real economic benefit to the farmer if pennycress goes into a jet fuel,” Isbell says. “If you can increase that bottom line, I think we’ve done a real benefit to local farms and that benefit shows up in the small towns that support those farms.”

Peoria research center

Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

Innovative Applications and Solutions

While the Peoria Ag Lab helped turn soybeans into a major commodity, lab research has shifted from crop production to utilization, says Sean Liu, a researcher and acting center director.

For example, the lab looks to develop new food uses for soybean hulls. This low-value feed byproduct has value-added potential in protein bars and drinks. Scientists continue to study a soybean-based reinforcement material that could replace synthetic ones used in rubber production. Ongoing research intends to develop a fast, accurate test to assess composition of soybeans. This could help U.S. soybeans stand out from competitors in the global export market.

Meanwhile, Liu says research in Peoria shows promise to produce antibiotic alternatives in animal production. A biological agent could reduce pesticide needs in crops. And in a couple years, farmers may have the option to buy a natural cattle insect repellent, claimed to last longer and cost less than any products on the market.

“Our production of technology, patents and commercial applications has impacts in terms of job employment, economic development and local tax revenues,” Liu says. “Our research is evolving, always on the front cutting edge, and relevant to farmers, the industry and consumers. We provide solutions to a lot of issues and will continue doing it.”

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