It may not be a household name even among farm families, but the oilseed camelina is showing good potential as an environmentally friendly commercial biofuel feedstock, particularly for biodiesel and jet fuel. To that end, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has just awarded $5.08 million to a team of researchers, led by Kansas State University Distinguished Professor in Grain Science and Industry, Xiuzhi “Susan” Sun, to study the crop's potential.
Besides Kansas State University scientists, the team is also composed of researchers from Montana State University; University of Wyoming; StrathKirn, Inc.; SBT LLC; Montana Gluten Free Inc.; and Henkel.
“The overall goal is to make oilseed camelina a cost-effective bioenergy and bio-based product feedstock. This project will generate substantial information that will build a foundation to make nonfood oilseeds a better resource for biofuels, chemicals and bioproducts, with minimal negative impact on food crop systems or the environment,” said Sun, who is co-director of the Center for Bio-based Polymers By Design.
Her research focuses on how plant- and grain-based materials such as oils, proteins and fibers can be used to create bio-based chemicals and products like resins, adhesives and coatings that are safer, more durable and environmentally friendly than products currently in use.
“USDA's continuing investments in research and development are proving a critical piece of President Obama's strategy to spur innovation of clean bioenergy right here at home and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a Jan. 11 statement announcing several bioenergy awards, including the camelina research. “The advances made through this research will help to boost local economies throughout rural America, creating and sustaining good-paying jobs, while moving our nation toward a clean energy economy.”
The camelina project funding is part of a $25 million effort by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture to fund research and development of next-generation energy and high-value bio-based products from a variety of biomass (plant) sources.
Previous studies indicated camelina-based jet fuel reduces net carbon emissions by about 80 percent, compared with jet fuels currently in use. It has been tested by the U.S. Navy and Air Force, and the results have been promising, but Sun said that producing fuels from camelina is currently not economically viable. Obstacles include the fact that camelina production is not sufficiently efficient per unit resource used, and camelina oil processing generates about 65 percent solid meal by-product, mainly proteins and carbohydrates, that is currently under-utilized. The technology has not been developed to produce high-value co-products from camelina bioenergy varieties.
With an eye on those challenges, the researchers Chengci Chen of Montana State and Augustine Obour of the University of Wyoming will look for ways to enhance camelina production by optimizing cropping systems within wheat-based crop rotations in Montana and Wyoming, where preliminary work has already been done, Sun said.
Once harvested and processed, Sun will develop new technologies to chemically convert camelina oil and meal to a variety of adhesives, coatings and composites, thus adding value to the co-product.
She will work with Kansas State University's Donghai Wang, professor in the university's Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, who will conduct fractionation and processing optimization research in collaboration with industries for commercialization potentials.
“Although camelina is currently grown in Montana and Wyoming, it will expand to the Northern Great Plains area, and it's possible that agricultural producers in Kansas might be interested in incorporating the crop into their cropping systems in the future,” Sun said.
The team members from the collaborative organizations, Jim McLaren (StrathKirn, Inc.), Shing-I Chang (K-State Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering), Tom Foulke (University of Wyoming Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics), Anton Bekkerman (Montana State University Department of Agricultural Economy), Terrie Boguski, and Blasé Leven (both with Kansas State University's Center for Hazardous Substances Research), will conduct the camelina crop's life cycle assessment and economic analysis, from planting and growing the crop through to the resulting bioenergy, biobased chemicals and processed bioproducts as well as conduct on-farm demonstrations in Montana and Wyoming.