Successful sequencing of the genetic structure of Camelina sativa has led to an exciting development in the science of biofuels and biolubricants. Kansas State University professor Timothy Durrett, in collaboration with scientists from Michigan State University and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln have successfully modified the nonfood oilseed plant Camelina sativa to produce a low viscosity, high-lipid oil.
In comparison to other biofuel crops, Camelina sativa measures up very well. Camelina sativa is a nonfood oilseed. It can be grown under very dry conditions and tolerates poor soil. Farmers struggling to produce on increasingly arid farm ground could find great success by rotating in a biodiesel crop such as Camelina. Looking forward, this oil seed crop could easily be rotated with wheat now grown in the semi-arid regions of western Kansas and eastern Colorado.
Camelina sativa is a fast growing annual, also known as false flax. The plants grow from one to three feet tall, and the plants can be sown and harvested with conventional farm equipment. The plants produce multiple pods of extremely oily seeds. Because it is a very short-season plant, in northern climates an early spring planting can be harvested in late July. Additionally, this biofuel crop can be seeded in the fall in warmer climates and allowed to go dormant for the winter, producing an even earlier growing season in the spring.
Camelina has a heavy branching growth habit and once established, competes well against weeds. The seeds typically contain thirty-five to thirty-eight percent oil, and are very high in omega-3 fatty acid. This high fat content lends itself well to biofuel and biolubricant applications. Once the seeds have been harvested, the remaining meal can function well as a high protein feed source for animal stock.
The low viscosity oil produced by Camelina sativa could be put to use as an effective base oil in the lubrication industry. Low viscosity oils are critical in applications of extreme low temperatures, and require fewer additives to be processed into biofuels. Additionally, while other biodiesel crops such as canola and soybean plants do provide oils that can be used by the biofuel industry, those plants are edible grade and provide a very low-lipid count. Camelina sativa provides a much higher lipid yield per seed.
Durrett and his colleagues have set a goal to alter the structure of oilseed genes to generate oils with higher lipid counts that can be utilized as improved base stock for biofuels or biolubricants. Their research was recently published in the journal Industrial Crops and Products, and was featured as the cover of Plant Biotechnology Journal.
Because the petroleum industry has such a large footprint outside the area of vehicle fuels, Durrett and hish colleagues are pleased to be expanding the role of oils generated by biofuel technology. Goals to be considered include using biofuels for other applications, such as the chemical industry, which would reduce global dependence on fossil fuels.
The specific focus on high-lipid oils such as Camelina sativa is good news for an industry that occasionally struggles to turn food quality plants into biofuels crops. While the meal generated by the processing of Camelina sativa for its oil may function as high-protein animal feed, Camelina sativa has not been considered foodstock for humans in the past. Some of the inefficiencies inherent in the biofuel industry are caused by the limited uses of low-lipid oils generated by plants such as soybeans and canola. Additionally, biofuels have a time limit that petroleum based fuels do not, in that biofuels degrade much more quickly over time. This limits their application in long-term uses and can generate an inconsistent rate of burn and/or breakdown.
Using Camelina sativa as a base oil stock for the lubrication industry is a remarkable breakthrough. Once stabilized, the high-lipid oil could be very successful in an application that has an inherent shelf life. Lubricants, by their nature, are applied in cases of extreme mechanical pressure to reduce friction and improve efficiency. However, they are also applied with the knowledge that their intended purpose is to be replaced and refreshed. Thus, in these applications the breakdown inherent in biofuels would be have less of an impact. If you would like to know more, read this article about how biodiesel is stored.