By Stefanie Camp
It is of no surprise that corn has been used for years to create biofuel, but how about a beautiful tiny little yellow seed called camelina?
Biofuels made from plants could one day help us reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, such as crude oil, one of our main imports from foreign countries. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, in 2008, the U.S. imported around 9.8 million barrels of crude oil per day, which is equivalent to 3.5 billion barrels per year. Reducing the amount of dependency on crude oil alone can make a huge positive impact for the U.S.
There are many benefits for creating biofuels. Biofuels burn cleaner than fossil fuels, releasing fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere, and they are sustainable. In other words, unlike oil, coal or natural gas (all non-renewable resources), biofuels won’t run out. This is what is referred to as renewable resources.
Biofuels fall into two main categories: bioalcohol and biodiesel. To create bioalcohol, such as ethanol, engineers use yeast and bacteria to break down the starch in corn and other plants such as sorghum, potatoes, wheat and sugar cane. To create biodiesel, refineries use the oil already found in crops such as camelina.
Camelina is a member of the Brassicaceae family, same plant family as broccoli and canola, and are informally known as the mustards, mustard flowers, or the cabbage family.
Camelina is often mistaken for a flaxseed plant. This gorgeous yellow-flowering plant makes for a low-input, hardy and versatile crop. A low-input crop is a crop that requires little to none irrigation, chemical fertilizers, or pesticides.
No intensive tilling practices are needed to grow this crop, therefore very little fuel is required to plant and harvest this crop. Due to the shallow roots of camelina, it doesn’t require a lot of moisture and does well on even questionable ground, making this plant suitable for even the toughest of grounds. Because it’s so hardy, camelina can outgrow nearly all weeds that compete with it, allowing for little inputs to sustain the crop for growth.
In addition, it also provides seasonal habitat and nectar to honey bees and other native pollinators, which is extremely beneficial and important today due to the current threats on honeybee populations.
Camelina is loaded with vitamin E (a cancer fighting antioxidant) and Omega-3 (which may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and lower blood pressure levels). In addition, with its high levels of essential fatty acids, camelina oil is particularly beneficial for nourishing and healing skin. It helps improve skin elasticity and repair damaged skin cells. Camelina oil has also been used as an excellent addition to hair care formulations, as it offers a protective coating for hair follicles.
Camelina is often used in cooking in replace of olive oil. Massage therapists also use this natural oil within their practices, and going back during the Egyptian times, humans regularly used this seed to create lamp oils.
One main beneficial byproduct that is produced from camelina oil is the “meal” that is created after the seed has been crushed or pressed. This meal is extremely nutritious for cattle and other livestock.
Camelina oil (an unrefined oil) is processed using natural processes. This means that the oil is processed without any harsh chemicals, solvents or contaminants. Left in their normal state after pressing, unrefined oils tend to be rich and robust in flavor and aroma. Similar to whole grain flours, unrefined oils are more nutritious than refined grains and oils.
Refined cooking oils are made using highly mechanical and chemical processes to extract, bleach, degum, or hydrogenate oil. These unnatural processes remove valuable nutrients from the seeds such as fiber and protein, thus creating many foods to have a low nutritional value.
Most importantly, camelina has hit the headlines in the past several years as a strong candidate for use in the production of biofuels, including but not limited to, aviation fuel. Washington State University, a highly renowned agricultural school, just recently announced a major initiative called the “Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest” project; the first of its kind in the U.S.
In partnership with Alaska Airlines, Boeing, the Port of Seattle, and the Port of Portland, the project will look at biomass options, including camelina, within a four-state region as possible sources for creating renewable jet fuel.
One farmer from Washington State, who is avid about this high commodity crop, stated that for every 100 pounds of seed produced about 40 pounds (or between 5 and 6 gallons) of oil is created. In ballpark numbers, this farmer figures he gets about 65 gallons of fuel per 1 acre grown of camelina, and that 65 gallons of oil will generate more than 60 gallons of biodiesel. This biodiesel is then used to fuel the machinery necessary to grow this crop as well as to fuel other vehicles such as diesel pick-up trucks.
So, if farmers would raise their own cattle, grow their own produce, use diesel machinery and vehicles on a regular basis AND produces their own fuel, that would make for a pretty nice self-sustainable way of living, wouldn’t you agree?
- Stefanie Camp is a science teacher on Kaua‘i’s Westside and an outrigger canoe aficionado. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.