Research on oilseed for chemical feedstock increases

Seeds of gold

10 March 2008 00:00  [Source: ICB]

The chemical industry is rediscovering its agricultural roots and looking at new plants as alternative feedstocks

Doris De Guzman/New York

THE WEED in your backyard could soon be the chemical industry's next crop idol.

Rising energy costs, and the trend of using environmentally friendly ingredients is driving the momentum toward the development of plant-based chemicals.

Looking at the chemical industry's history of using oilseed-bearing plants as feedstock, scientists say the quest now is to find plant crops that are sustainable, economical and do not compete with the food chain.

This is what US-based bioscience company Metabolix hopes to achieve, according to chairman and CEO Jay Kouba, who presented at the recent BIO CEO & Investors conference in New York City. Kouba noted Metabolix's long-term goals to produce oilseed-based plastics and fuels, as well as chemicals from other agricultural products.

The company, based in Cambridge, Massachussets, received a $2m grant last year from the US Department of Commerce to develop bio-based C4 chemicals, such as butanediol and tetrahydrofuran. Current demand for C4 chemicals, said Kouba, is estimated at 2.5bn lbs/year (1.1bn kgs/year) at an annual growth rate of 5%.

Last month, Metabolix partnered with Danforth Plant Science Center, based in St. Louis, Missouri, to develop biofuels and plastics from industrial oilseed crops.

"Oilseeds are an attractive target because they offer multiple sources of value in a single crop. The commercial infrastructure for nonfood applications of vegetable oils within biodiesel and oleochemicals are also already well-developed," said Kouba.

"This approach has the potential to accelerate the well-fulfillment of our plant-science efforts."

Metabolix chief scientific officer Oliver Peoples says the firm is still determining which seeds are the best commercial target.

"The main challenge will be scientific in terms of producing the bioplastic at commercial levels in a high-yielding seed," says Peoples. "We are currently assembling a team of scientists that will make up the R&D [research and development] team and once that is in place, we will complete the establishment of the definitive milestones and timelines in commercializing our oilseed-based plastics and chemicals."

Metabolix is evaluating camelina, also known as false flax or wild flax, and brassica juncea (Indian mustard) as possible oilseed candidates, according to an article from the St. Louis Post. The Post also quoted Peoples stating a possible pilot plant running by 2011. Peoples declined to confirm either statement.

Camelina is looking like a hot crop as a potential biofuel feedstock, according to Sam Huttenbauer, CEO of Montana-based Great Plains - the Camelina Company. Great Plains hopes to grow around 1m acres (400,000 ha) of camelina, equivalent to 100m gallons/year (379m liters/year) of biofuel, by 2012.

"Camelina is a sustainable fuel option today, unlike other potential biofuel crops which look towards commercialization five to 10 years from now," says Huttenbauer. "It can be grown on marginal land and requires very little water. The fact that it is a nonfood crop also means that it does not play into the fuel-versus-food debate."

Great Plains partnered with UK-based specialty chemicals company INEOS last year for the production of camelina-based biodiesel. The firm says it is also looking at ways to maximize the potential of the crop by using all components of camelina, from the oil and the meal, to innovative uses for the residual material left after harvesting.

"There will no doubt be new uses and potential unlocked as our development of this crop continues," adds Huttenbauer.

Agriculture biosciences company Targeted Growth Inc. (TGI), based in Seattle, Washington, US, is also working on camelina oil for biodiesel and the meal for potential animal feed. TGI says its target this year is to produce 50,000 acres of camelina in the US state of Montana.

The company also formed a joint venture called Sustainable Oils with US biodiesel producer Green Earth Fuels last year. Sustainable Oils plan to produce and market up to 100m gallons of camelina-based biodiesel by 2010.

The challenge, says Sustainable Oils CEO Don Panter, is to earn the trust of farmers in order to gain significant acres.

"They have to know that if they plant this crop, there will be a demand for it," says Panter. "Montana's Department of Agriculture just launched an incentive program for farmers that reimburses them the cost of camelina seed up to $1.30/lb, which we think will go a long way toward helping them feel comfortable in planting the seed."

RISKY BUSINESS

"New crops are risky for growers. They want to know how much they're going to be paid for them while the industrial counterparts have to know if they will have a reliable supply of their feedstock," notes Mike Foster, research scientist for Texas AgriLife Research, who is currently working on the development of lesquerella oilseed and guayule, a native shrub in Texas that produces natural rubber. Foster hopes the current profitability of biofuel crops could drive some of the growers' interest in producing other new industrial crops.

Texas AgriLife Research is looking to develop guayule rubber for medical applications where demand for natural rubber used in gloves continues to increase. All natural rubbers consumed in the US are imported.

"In one of the last reports I saw, natural rubber varied from $1.30-1.60/lb. Also, many people are allergic to natural rubber products, but guayule rubber does not seem to cause allergic reactions because of fewer proteins. That's where we are headed with this development," says Foster.

Lesquerella, meanwhile, is being developed as a potential commercial alternative to imported castor oil, which is used as a lubricant and in cosmetics, inks, plastics and paints. Castor oil is also gaining interest worldwide as a potential biofuel feedstock and biofuel additive.

India-based plant biotechnology company Terasol LABS has been focusing on the development of castor and jatropha as biodiesel feedstock.

Terasol partnered with SEBRAE-CE, the Brazilian Service of Support for Micro and Small Enterprises, last year to develop test plantations in Ceara, Brazil. Terasol plans to commercialize biofuels made from the oilseeds in 2009.

"Terasol's interest in castor and jatropha stems from the fact that they are nonfood crops that can be grown in semiarid conditions that aren't suitable for more common agricultural uses," says CEO Sundeep Bhan. "Jatropha specifically, is a good candidate for biodiesel because of its higher oil yield and lower input costs compared to first-generation feedstock such as soy, canola and palm. Castor oil's current high price prevents it from being an economical biofuel feedstock as of yet, and it is more attractive to be used as raw material for chemicals."

NEW FEEDSTOCK IN LINE

Aside from lesquerella and camelina, other potential oilseeds being primed for chemical applications include cuphea, crambe, echium and high oleic sunflower, says Andrew Hebard, president and CEO of Technology Crops International (TCI).

"Biorenewables will continue to stay," says Hebard. "The development and use of oilseeds as chemical feedstock is increasing, and many studies are being done. Right now, they are going through a process of acceptance and commercialization."

Even industrial oilseeds such as high erucic rapeseed (HEAR) and tung, which were used as chemical feedstocks before the petroleum era, are coming back.

Last year, TCI offered growers in Georgia HEAR contracts that paid $9/bushel, including freight incentives and buyer guarantees.

"The oil from HEAR offers a renewable, cost-effective alternative source of erucic acid, a long-chain fatty acid in great demand by multiple industries around the world," adds Hebard.

HEAR oil contains around 48% erucic acid, according to TCI. The acid is a key raw ingredient for the fatty amide erucamide, used mostly in plastic film application. Other end uses of erucic acid are found in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and personal care, and as additives in industrial lubricants and biofuels.

The US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Services (ARS) hopes to genetically engineer oilseed crops to produce the chemical profile of tung oil. Only about 5,000 acres of tung trees are grown in the US, which were mostly devastated by Hurricane Katrina, says ARS plant geneticist Jay Shockey.

Tung trees are mostly grown in China and Brazil. They take about six to seven years after planting before fruit set begins, says Shockey. "The supply, price and quality of imported tung oil is often unpredictable and we would like to be able to create a new domestic source of this oil."

Tung oil, mostly composed of eleostearic acid, is currently used in wood finishing. The acid is said to be an unusual conjugated fatty acid that can polymerize in the presence of oxygen.

The ARS hopes the findings of the study will be applicable to similar projects worldwide that seek to produce other specialty edible and industrial oils in engineered crops.

"It is our expectation that many of these projects face the same sets of bottlenecks and limitations," says Shockey. "The greatest long-term economic and scientific benefits of the project are the creation of a blueprint for which genes are needed to produce other novel high-value oils such as castor oil that will impact larger, more valuable segments of the industry."

Shockey says they hope to complete the search of new tung genes within the next two to three years, and to have engineered plants undergoing field trials within another two to three years.

"Once we determine the minimal gene set that is needed for tung oil synthesis, we can use the power of genetics and modern molecular biology to transfer these genes into microbes, which can be used to produce tung oil in an industrial fermentation setting, and/or into other traditional oilseed crops," he adds.

For more on green chemicals, read Doris De Guzman's blog





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