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Universities, Companies Study Oilseed Camelina as Biofuel

Xiuzhi Susan Sun (Kansas State University)

Xiuzhi Susan Sun (Kansas State University)

Bioscientists at Kansas State University in Manhattan, with colleagues at two other universities and four companies, are studying the economic potential of the oilseed plant camelina as a commercial biofuel feedstock. The project, led by K-State agricultural engineering professor Xiuzhi Susan Sun (pictured right), is funded by a $5.08 million grant from National Institute of Food and Agriculture, part of U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sun’s team — which includes colleagues from K-State, Montana State, and University of Wyoming, as well as the companies Henkel, StrathKirn Inc., SBT LLC, and Montana Gluten Free Inc. — will investigate ways of making camelina more economic as a biofuel feedstock, mainly for aviation and biodiesel. The research will cover not only more economically feasible ways of producing biofuels from camelina, but also the potential for converting camelina’s by-products into other useful products, adding to the plant’s value.

Camelina sativa is a plant related to canola and a member of the mustard family that grows from one to three feet tall, producing seed pods containing many small, oily seeds. It is a fast-growing plant in the northern U.S. plains with a short growing season, and can produce seeds with less rainfall.

Jet fuel from camelina has been shown to reduce net carbon emissions by about 80 percent, compared with jet fuels currently in use, and has been tested by the U.S. Navy and Air Force. Producing fuels from camelina is still not economically viable, however, due to the low efficiency of camelina biofuel production. Yet, camelina oil processing also generates about 65 percent solid meal, mainly proteins and carbohydrates, that is currently underutilized, and no technology is available so far to produce high-value by-products from camelina biofuel production.

To help make camelina more economically viable, Sun will develop new technologies to chemically convert camelina oil and meal, after its harvesting and processing, to adhesives, coatings and composites, thus adding value to the by-products. In addition, researchers Chengci Chen of Montana State and Augustine Obour of University of Wyoming will study ways to coordinate camelina crop schedules with wheat-based crop rotations in Montana and Wyoming, where preliminary work has already been done.

“This project will generate substantial information,” says Sun, “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.” The camelina project is part of a $25 million initiative by National Institute of Food and Agriculture to fund research and development of new high-value energy and bio-based products from a variety of plant sources.

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