Thursday, October 23, 2014
   
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Camelina has potential as biofuels crop

There may never be huge expanses of camelina growing in Nebraska, but it just might fill a niche in the western part of the state as an oilseed crop well-suited for bio-based oil applications.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientists Ed Cahoon and Tom Clemente recently received a $500,000, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to research the crop’s potential for development of industrial lubricants.

Camelina, a yellow-flowering oilseed crop that grows one to three feet tall, has some particular advantages over other oilseeds as an industrial oil crop, said Cahoon, a lipid biochemist and molecular biologist. For example, it’s not widely used for food, so there’s little risk of mixing food and non-food traits. It also requires little irrigation.

“It’s well suited for western Nebraska,” Cahoon said.

Camelina also is an excellent subject for research because it can be genetically transformed quite easily and rapidly to generate improved oil compositions, Cahoon said. Also, very little breeding and genetics research has been done on camelina, noted Dipak Santra, an alternative crops breeding specialist who’s conducting camelina trials in western Nebraska.

Cahoon also is researching camelina oil’s use as a jet fuel, under a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Earlier studies have shown camelina-based jet fuel can reduce carbon emissions from jets by about 80 percent. The U.S. Navy chose camelina as the feedstock for its first test of aviation biofuel, successfully operating a static jet engine last year, and the U.S. Air Force began testing the fuel earlier this year.

As part of the research, Santra, based at UNL’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff, is conducting camelina research in the region, along with his colleagues Gary Hergert, a soil fertility specialist, and Alex Pavlista, a crop physiologist.

The team’s work is focused on variety development and production under limited irrigation, Santra said.

Santra is conducting genetics research to develop camelina varieties suitable for western Nebraska. Traits such as high yield and insect and disease resistance are important for any varieties, he said. However, varieties to be grown in western Nebraska also must be heat tolerant and resistant to seed shattering.

“We’re trying to find the best varieties for this area,” Santra said. “My objective is to test a large number of germplasms or varieties.”

Santra also is testing a small sample from USDA’s collection of camelina seeds from all over the world. Ultimately, he hopes to develop new lines of the crop especially well-suited to the region.

A couple of farmers in the Panhandle have experimented with growing camelina, but they’ve had a difficult time marketing it, Santra said.

But camelina has significant potential, the UNL scientists say.

One estimate, from Biomass Advisors, a renewable energy consulting firm, is that by 2025, 1 billion gallons of camelina biofuel could be produced per year for the aviation and biodiesel sectors. That could create 25,000 new jobs and produce more than $5.5 billion new revenues and $3.5 billion in new agricultural income for American and Canadian farmers.