By Jaclyn Tan
Camelina is not a well-known crop in Nebraska, but its potential as a biofuel and biolubricant crop could soon be realized in western Nebraska, said Ed Cahoon, professor of biochemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
"It seems that a lot of people in Nebraska don't know about camelina, even within the university," Cahoon said, "and part of my mission is sort of to educate people about camelina and about its usefulness for Western Nebraska."
In 2010, Cahoon and fellow UNL researcher Tom Clemente received a $500,000, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study how camelina oil can be used as an industrial lubricant, such as in car engines or hydraulic machinery. In addition, Cahoon also has a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to study the use of camelina oil as a jet fuel.
Camelina, a member of the mustard family, is an oilseed crop. It would grow well in Western Nebraska, Cahoon said, because camelina can thrive in areas of limited rainfall and in less fertile soil. "Camelina can be more productive on land in Western Nebraska that is not used for soybean production and therefore is not competing for the land that soybean, a food and feed crop, would be grown," Cahoon said.
For example, he said, the plant can grow well in land such as in Western Nebraska, Montana and parts of Colorado. "It's my hope that for Nebraska, that camelina could be some alternative or additional crop for the western part of the state," Cahoon said.
Camelina can also be a source of income on land that "would normally sit unproductive" during a fallow year in the Great Plains, Cahoon said. "In parts of the Great Plains, they don't grow crops in certain years to sort of build up the moisture in the soil," he explained.
Cahoon said researchers in Montana and Washington, who are also trying to develop camelina as a biofuel, think camelina could be an alternative crop for those years. "They think they can grow camelina in these fallow years because camelina doesn't require a lot of of rain [or] a lot of moisture
in the soil, and wouldn't really compromise that fallow year."
Camelina naturally has high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, Cahoon said, which are great for health. However, camelina is not widely used as a food crop in the U.S. because alternative nutritional oils, such as flax oil are plentiful, he said. So, Cahoon said, researchers won't have to worry about camelina seeds that have been modified for biolubricant or biofuel uses being accidentally mixed in with the food crop camelina, as may be the case with some other crops.
Characteristics of Camelina as a Biolubricant and Biofuel
Right now, Cahoon said, researchers are trying to tweak camelina genetics so that the plant produces oil that is functional both as a biolubricant and biofuel. He said biofuels and biolubricants need to have two characteristics: 1) they must be oxidatively stable and 2) they must have the right pour properties.
An oxidatively stable oil won't oxidize, or spoil, so easily, Cahoon said. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as Omega-3 fatty acids, are very oxidatively unstable. Fish oil, for example, contains high amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids, he said. So when these fatty acids oxidize, Cahoon said, it results in "this rancidity and these off-smells and off-flavors," which is why fish can smell.
Since camelina is high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, Cahoon said researchers are working to create seeds with more monounsaturated fatty acids, because those don't spoil as quickly. "You want something that you can have in a tank of a car or a tractor or a truck or something," Cahoon said, "that is stable for long periods of time."
In addition to being oxidatively stable, an oil must have the right cold flow properties to be used as a biolubricant or biofuel, Cahoon said. The cold flow property of an oil is measured by an oil's ability to remain liquid and not freeze at lower temperatures. For example, he said, it's important for a jet fuel to have good cold flow properties. "So when you're up in a jet, you're at very high elevations and altitudes and it's very cold under those conditions. So you don't want a vegetable oil that will freeze up in the tank," he explained.
Genetically Modifying Camelina
Cahoon said researchers have been successful so far in manipulating the fatty acid content of camelina seeds through genetic modification, allowing them to create more oxidatively stable oils.The time and skill required to modify a crop's genetic makeup varies for each crop. For example, "When we try to make these genetic modifications to soybeans, it requires a lot of time and people that have really a lot of skill," Cahoon said.
In contrast, camelina gene modification requires a much simpler and less time-consuming process, Cahoon said. "And so you can do a lot of manipulation, a lot of changes in the oil composition, very easily ... very quickly," he said, which is another reason camelina is a favored crop for biofuel and biolubricant research.
Challenges and Future Goals
Sometimes, modified seeds don't germinate as well as unmodified ones, Cahoon said, resulting in a lower yield. Researchers are currently working to make genetic modifications that "minimize the negative agronomic impacts," he said. "We want to have a high-yielding crop that has the oil quality that we desire."
Aside from that, Cahoon said the next step is to produce a lot more modified camelina crop so that researchers can harvest enough oil to test the functionality of it. "For the jet fuel," he said, "we would hope that perhaps in five years we would have some modifications made where we can put it out in the field [and] get enough oil where we can actually test it in a jet to see if it really does have the utility that we want."
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