Renewable Oil Breakthrough

Research by CSIRO now makes it possible to produce oil in the leaves and stems of plants as well as the seeds which promises to be a game changer in the global production of renewable oils.

Because we love seeing people science the hell out of some of the bigger problems facing our world today, we couldn’t resist sharing this piece of news that made it’s way to us this week.

CSIRO has signed an agreement with US-based company, Amfora, to advance the development and commercialisation of the technology to produce energy-rich feed for livestock.

And while that’s nice, the really fun stuff lies in the potential of this technology to develop biofuels, industrial oils and high tech, high-energy human food from plants in the hopefully not too distant future.

Innovation Leader with CSIRO Agriculture and Food, Allan Green, explained the technology better than we ever could, here’s what he had to say, “Previously, it has only been possible to extract oil from the oil-rich seeds and fruits of some specialised plants, such as canola, soybean, sunflower, coconut and oil palm.

“What we have been able to do is switch on this high-level oil production in vegetative tissue, such as in stems and leaves, as well.”

The research team was able to boost the oil content in some of the plant tissue to around 35 per cent, which is the same amount as in many oil seed crops.

“If the technology were applied to existing oil crops it could potentially treble oil productivity and greatly expand renewable oil production worldwide,” Dr Green said.

“We are using solar energy captured by the plant to convert the leaf’s starch reserves into more energy-dense oil molecules, which significantly increases the energy value of the vegetative tissue where the oil accumulates.”

CSIRO Chief Executive, Larry Marshall, said the work demonstrates the capacity of Australian researchers to develop innovative solutions for global industries.

“It is estimated that in 20 years’ time we will need 50 per cent more plant-based oils just to meet the nutritional needs of a global population, and there is also a growing demand for renewable biofuels,” Dr Marshall said.

“A transformational approach was needed to solve the increasing demand for plant oils within the limitations of our current agricultural footprint.”

CSIRO will maintain rights as a major shareholder under the deal, while Amfora will use the technology to develop oil content in the vegetative tissue of corn and sorghum, meaning they can market a feed for dairy farmers that does not require them to purchase additional oils, such as tallow or cotton seed, to supplement feeds.

Dairy cattle feeding on sorghum. ©John Eveson / FLPA / Minden Pictures

Dairy cattle require around seven per cent fat in their diet to produce milk. If their feed already contains this fat in the form of oil then this means less agricultural land is needed to produce feed and fewer greenhouse gas emissions are produced from feed production.

The agreement with Amfora is the first major application for the high oil technology. It provides a direct path to market, as the oil does not need to be extracted from the leaves before it is fed to cattle.

Future applications, such as the production of industrial oils and bio-based diesel, will require further industrial supply chain development to customise techniques for extracting the oil and converting it to suitable products.

Feature Image Courtesy: Tract Consulting
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