Friction Boffins See Future In Plant-Based Oils

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There’s one simple reason why Linnaeus Plant Sciences founder Jack Grushcow would rather talk about camelina as a lubricant than as camelina in your tank.

Fuel sells for around $1 per litre, but hydraulic fluid sells for $5 per litre.

The Vancouver-based entrepreneur told the recent Canadian Weed Science Society’s annual meeting there are a multitude of value-added industrial uses for new, plant-based oils beyond simply crushing the seed and making biodiesel to burn in internal combustion engines.

“The stuff that’s left over is going to be biodiesel,” he said.

Non-food oilseed plants are like the philosopher’s stone of yore, in that they can be used to generate valuable feedstocks using nothing more than water, nutrients, and sunlight, without the enormous capital expenditures and environmental footprint of petroleum refineries.

But Grushcow isn’t interested in contracting camelina for 10 to 12 cents per pound for fuel. He’d rather be in a position to offer $1.50 per pound to producers in order to develop a more sustainable value chain.

“We don’t want to be the hewers of timber and the drawers of water. We won’t be shipping this stuff to the States for processing.”

Grushcow, who made his fortune in the software business in the 1990s developing innovative products that later became Microsoft’s stable of email processing solutions, has signed a licensing agreement with DuPont to use the industrial giant’s gene intellectual property, advanced gene technologies, and biotechnology expertise to accelerate development and commercialization of value-added camelina oil.

He is currently working on plans for a standardized camelina processing plant that he estimates would employ 40 people and generate $5 million in pre-tax profit for the local economy by growing the crop locally, crushing it, and processing it into many different products such as feedstocks for polymers, lubricants, and greases.

One of biodiesel’s selling points lies in its low-friction properties which extend engine life by reducing wear on internal parts. That’s because plant-based oils are inherently superior to their petroleum-based cousins, said Grushcow.

“Petroleum oil in its crudest sense, is the kind of thing you have in winter diesel which beats the hell out of your equipment. Why? Because it has low lubricity,” said Grushcow.

A better WD-40

One product with huge profit potential is a bio-based version of WD-40 penetrating oil that would have superior characteristics without the toxic side effects of the petroleum- based version.

“If you can sell a tiny container for $5 each, trust me, there is money to be made for everybody involved in producing these products,” he said.

Convincing publicly operated bus companies, for example, to try plant-based substitutes is a challenge, he added. But as concerns about pollution and the environment grow, great opportunities will arise for companies that are able to “cherry-pick” the most profitable applications.

Camelina, as a non-food crop, dodges the food-versus- fuel debate, and also offers a short growing season and natural drought tolerance. Canola is not a good choice, he added, because grower associations are leery of introducing novel, genetic modifications onto the landscape.

The successful use of castor oil in producing a biobased polymer called Nylon 11, which competes directly with its petroleum-based cousin, Nylon 12, shows the future potential of industrial oilseeds, said Grushcow.

But castor beans, mainly produced in India, must be hand-picked, and that means annual global raw castor oil production is limited to around 100,000 tonnes. Prices are very volatile depending on the year, and can range from $800 to $1,800 per tonne.

Castor oil is prized because it yields 90 per cent hydroxy fatty acid, but if the yield the same chemical in camelina could be boosted to 20 per cent via gene insertion, then 500,000 acres of the crop could double the world’s supply of Nylon 11, said Grushcow.

His company targets innovation by networking plant biotechnologists, agronomists, and “tribologists” – friction engineers and scientists studying ways to alleviate wear – together for the exchange of ideas between formerly isolated disciplines.

“There are millions of scientists and over 5,000 companies worldwide that belong to the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers,” said Grushcow. “It’s a wild conference in Las Vegas every year. You guys should attend some time.”





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