One of the most promising avenues for reducing our national dependence on imported oil, lowering greenhouse gases and boosting domestic fuel production is biofuel from non-food plant seed oils.
Recently, a University of Massachusetts Amherst team started a $2 million project to develop Camelina, a non-food oil seed crop related to canola, to dramatically increase seed oil generation for processing into sustainable liquid transportation fuels.
Plant oils can directly convert to biofuels with existing technologies, are compatible with current farm practices and are carbon neutral. As team leader and biochemist Danny Schnell says, “Our goals are to double the current maximum seed and fuel yield from Camelina while requiring less than 1 million acres to achieve the 100 million gallons per year target for commercial viability.” Camelina is an attractive candidate species, he adds, because it will grow in poor soil and not compete with food crops. It is also drought tolerant, has a short growing season and requires little fertilizer.
Boosting oil seed yield to develop commercial biofuels will require increasing their relatively low yield, say Schnell and colleagues. As experts in plant physiology, microbial photosynthesis and chemistry, they plan to genetically engineer Camelina chloroplasts, where photosynthesis takes place, to increase carbon photosynthesis capture and fixation rates. They also want to shift the plant toward producing less sugar and more seed oil and terpenes, the building blocks of liquid fuels.
“We’ll do this biochemically, following the plant’s natural pathways to increase efficiency and divert energy to produce more seed oil, which the plant already makes to nourish its seeds” Schnell says, “We hope to increase the ratio of oil in the seeds from 40 to 80 percent, increase the number of seeds produced, or a combination of the two.”