Is There Room For Camelina?

With a short growing season and low harvesting costs, Camelina sativa could hold a small market in the western Canadian biofuels industry. Despite those advantages, limited research has been done to determine its full agronomic potential. While it's been touted as a potential feedstock for biodiesel, it remains an under-exploited crop, and with an industry entrenched in canola-based biodiesel, is there enough room to consider camelina?
By Khalila Sawyer | June 17, 2008
It is estimated that camelina, a crop belonging to the Brassicacae family, has been grown for thousands of years. Native to southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia, the crop was traditionally cultivated for oil production in the 19th century. Shortly after World War II however, camelina was largely displaced as more productive crops, such as wheat and rapeseed, began being produced. Shortly thereafter, it became known as a common weed called false flax.

Crop Potential
Over the past decade, camelina has become a crop of interest inspired by its high oil composition of approximately 35 percent to 45 percent omega-3 fatty acids. It is cold-weather tolerant, well-adapted to dry conditions and has a relatively short 85- to 100-day growing season. Camelina yields an average 1,200 to 1,400 pounds per acre and the protein and fiber content in its meal byproduct is comparable with soybean meal ranging between 45 percent to 47 percent crude protein and 10 percent to 11 percent fiber. In addition, because it has lower fertilizer, pesticide and water requirements, its production cost is substantially lower than other oilseeds, positioning it as an attractive potential crop for biodiesel production.

It has been suggested that camelina, traditionally used for higher value products such as culinary oil, cosmetics and animals feed, may prove more profitable for producers, but developments are in the works to assign this crop a more significant role in biodiesel production in North America.

Companies such as Camelina Canada in Lethbridge, Alberta, for example, are doing their part to create more awareness of the crop. Camelina Canada grows, harvests and sells camelina for the health food and supplement, industrial oil and renewable fuel industries. Founded in 2005 by Ryan Mercer and Dan Kusalik, Camelina Canada set out to select and improve genetics, produce, commercially contract, and market the seed oil and meal. Currently, the company produces 1,300 acres annually and has been in talks with local biodiesel producers to supply camelina and help with the logistics for a number of proposed biodiesel projects.

Last year, the Canadian canola industry developed an ambitious plan to produce nearly 15 million metric tons (16 million tons) of canola in Canada by 2015 and already, the country has realized a slight rise in canola acreage. As reported by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, canola area in Canada in the spring of 2008 has increased slightly to 14.9 million acres, up from 14.7 million in 2007. "There's still a place for canola [in biodiesel production], but just as much for camelina as well," says Mercer, who believes that camelina could be positioned as a very competitive feedstock for biodiesel due to its short crop season and ideal dry-land adaptability. And with Canada's renewable fuels standard requiring 5 percent biodiesel in all diesel fuel by 2012, the prospect of camelina's place in the industry may become clearer. "The renewable fuels standard will definitely help the canola crushers in Canada, which in turn will also help us," Mercer says.

Viability as a Feedstock
A handful of biodiesel facilities in the United States are also researching camelina in more depth as a new and viable feedstock for the production of biodiesel. Great Plains Oil and Exploration, a Montana-based renewable fuels energy company, has moved camelina to the forefront of its recent research efforts. Great Plains anticipates constructing its first camelina crushing facility and refinery at a yet-to-be-determined location in Montana this year. "Great Plains is committed to creating a sustainable alternative crop to support future generations," says Sam Huttenbauer, president of Great Plains. "The goal here in Montana is to raise the number of camelina acres planted so we can make that dream a reality."

Great Plains and its partner INEOS Enterprises, a U.K. manufacturer of specialty chemicals and oil production, have established a goal of growing 1 million acres by 2012. As camelina is still a new crop to many North American farmers, planting significant acreage is proving to be the biggest challenge for the company. As a result, Great Plains has recently offered Montana producers three new contract options in 2008 for all camelina grown and delivered to Great Plains storage facilities. "We want to encourage new growers to sign up for the program and at the same time reward the growers who have been with us from the beginning," Huttenbauer says. "We believe these contracts offer new and old growers the best guaranteed prices for their camelina acres." Overall, camelina crop acreage in Montana has grown significantly the past few years increasing from 20,000 acres in 2006 to 50,000 acres in 2007. The company still has a long way to go though.

Putting these advancements aside, Camelina's full agronomic potential remains largely unexplored in North America and many differing views still exist in regard to the crop's oil composition. Both Camelina Canada and Great Plains boast that camelina oil contains a substantial amount of tocopherols (vitamin E), which act as an antioxidant that stabilizes the oil, giving it a longer shelf life. While this may be true, a recent study titled, "Camelina sativa: A potential oilseed crop for biofuels and GE products" published by the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology at Montana State University, Bozeman, states that it is camelina's high percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids that makes it more susceptible to oxidation, thereby making it undesirable for the production of biodiesel. Researchers of this study however, believe that modifying and improving the crop's fatty acid compositions could allow it to become a more recognizable biodiesel feedstock.

While the camelina industry may be gaining momentum to a certain degree, it seems the crop's potential for biodiesel production in Canada remains unclear. Kevin Falk, research scientist of crop breeding and diversification for Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada, suggests that with the many potential uses for the crop, combined with its favorable agronomics, camelina may have a place in Western Canadian agriculture however, much more research is necessary to develop it into a strong potential biodiesel feedstock. "The crop is off to a good start. Whether or not it will be a lubricant or an oil remains to be seen," Falk says. "It has great potential for short seed growing areas and perhaps as a vehicle for newer technologies."

There is also a question of infrastructure. The biodiesel industry hasn't yet decided which oil is best when comparing common oilseeds used in the production of biodiesel, Falk says. "We haven't played with the oil profile [of camelina] much. We don't know right now if the lubricity benefits of canola are in camelina, but if that's true, then the benefits are even greater."

Still, the viability of camelina as a feedstock for biodiesel production remains to be seen and perhaps the questions surrounding its potential will be answered in years to come when more research is conducted. Like Mercer though, Falk agrees that there is a lot of room for a variety of oilseeds in the industry. Falk also believes the upcoming renewable fuels standard will have an affect on the future of the camelina industry. "It depends on how much canola oil gets diverted and whether canola can meet the demand, but it could certainly put the pressure on camelina" Falk says.

Khalila Sawyer is Biofuels Canada managing editor. Reach her at ksawyer@bbibiofuels.com or (519) 576-4500. This feature was reprinted from the April/May issue.
 
 
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