We’ll forgive you if you’ve never heard of camelina, a flowering plant similar to canola that can be used for its oil. But it’s the potential for biodiesel production that’s putting the little seed on center stage. This morning Targeted Growth, a company that modifies plants through breeding and biotechnology, and Green Earth Fuels, a biodiesel maker,
announced a new joint venture called Sustainable Oils, which will focus on producing camelina-based biodiesel.
The new venture decided to throw down the gauntlet, declaring that they plan to produce up to 100 million gallons of camelina-based fuel by 2010, “the single largest U.S. contract for the unique biodiesel-specific feedstock,” according to their release. The j.v. also put on a big show by having U.S. Senators Max Baucus (D-Mon.) and Jon Tester (D-Mon.), along with Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, at its press conference. Montana officials hope that camelina biodiesel will develop into a major industry for the state, especially given that it can be grown in more marginal farmland areas of Montana and be used as a much-needed rotational crop.
Montana-based Great Plains Oil and Exploration is also focused on turning camelina into biodiesel. The company says their partners have the capacity to grow 100,000 acres worth of camelina oil in 2007.
To understand more about why Montana and biodiesel producers are touting camelina as some kind of wondercrop, I chatted with University of Idaho crop scientist Stephen Guy, who has been doing field research with camelina for three-plus years now. Basically biodiesel producers want a non-food crop that produces oil with the least amount of input.
Guy says camelina can be grown for a low cost and produced in diverse climates, plus it has a more stable yield and needs less fertilizer (cheaper). Even bugs don’t bother it as much as they do other crops, he says. And since camelina oil is also not widely used as a food oil, it can avoid those food vs. fuel debates. (Though Guy does think it makes a very healthy food oil, and should be approved to be marketed for food consumption.)
At the same time, Guy also says that camelina producers have a lot to learn from these early initiatives. “It will be a steep learning curve. There will be a lot of failures and a lot of successes.” No doubt Targeted Growth and Green Earth Fuels are hoping their Sustainable Oils venture doesn’t fall into that first category.