Exploring A Second Generation Biofuel

Camelina, green jet biofuelBioCycle October 2010, Vol. 51, No. 10, p. 46

A crop once grown to provide lamp oil in ancient Rome soars to new heights as a green jet fuel.

Joan Melcher

SCOTT Johnson, president of a company that has set its sights on this cultivar, will tell you that Camelina sativa meets all the criteria for a second-generation biofuel: It’s not a food crop and doesn’t compete as such; it grows well – and fast – on arid, marginal land and as a rotation crop with wheat; it needs little water, requires less fertilizer and herbicides than most crops, and has been proven to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent (over its life cycle compared to petroleum jet fuel); and it has a high oil content. An extra bonus is that more than 40 percent of its mass after processing serves as a high-protein meal rich in omega-3 fatty acids. A member of the mustard family, camelina has been called the blue-collar cousin of canola.

Johnson’ company, Sustainable Oils, is combining agronomy with high-tech bioscience in a vertically-integrated production model designed to shepherd camelina into today’s biofuel lexicon. Sustainable Oils has strong research and technology roots with Targeted Growth, Inc., a Seattle-based renewable energy bioscience company, and Green Earth Fuels, a Houston-based biodiesel company funding it as a joint venture.
harvesting camelina, second-generation bio fuel
Based in Bozeman, Montana, the company has several operations going in various locations. Scientists test camelina seeds in a lab in Seattle, farmers across several states grow the crop under contract to the company, seed-breeding operations include 32 sites in the U.S. and Canada and also take place over the winter in Arizona and Chile, and field tests are conducted in several states – with Montana State University researchers analyzing the results. With all this activity, Sustainable Oils doubled the size of its research facility in Bozeman this spring. Researchers there are working to provide optimum strains of seed for particular growing conditions.

JET BIODIESEL
The company contracts with the U.S. Air Force to provide blended biodiesel for flight tests. Recently it was awarded a contract by the Defense Energy Support Center to supply 100,000 gallons. The contract includes an option to purchase an additional 250,000 gallons between June 2010 and December 2011. With that option exercised, Johnson says Sustainable Oils will have sold $17 million worth of jet fuel by the end of 2011. Currently, the oil is being refined using a technology developed by UOP (a Honeywell company) at a leased refinery in Bayport, Texas.
camelina fuels Navy jet
Sustainable Oils also recently provided biodiesel made for a test flight of a commercial carrier in Japan and, with AltAir Fuels, a Seattle-based green fuels company, signed a memorandum of understanding to provide jet biodiesel to 14 airlines served through Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport. Johnson says the contract could result in 750 million gallons of camelina oil sales in the next 10 years, an output that would require 750,000 acres of camelina under cultivation to produce 75 million gallons annually (1 acre = 100 gallons). The move could reduce the airport’s carbon footprint by about 15 percent.

Sustainable Oils has targeted its first production to jet fuels and the U.S. military because the military is a ready market for this type of fuel, Johnson explains. Camelina oil mirrors the chemical makeup of petroleum and can be substituted for petroleum 100 percent. To date, however, the test fuels used have been a blend of 50 percent camelina oil and 50 percent petroleum. He expects the 50-50 blend will have ASTM certification by the end of this year.

NOT REINVENTING THE WHEEL
A main tenet of Sustainable Oil’s business model is to avoid reinventing the wheel. The company was drawn to camelina for all its previously listed criteria, but also because farmers growing it can use the same machinery, rotate it with their wheat crops and store it in wheat silos.

Johnson says the concept works on the other end as well: AltAir Fuels will use the Tesoro Anacortes oil refinery for refining camelina using the UOP technology and ship the fuel through the refinery’s pipeline to Sea-Tac airport. About 25 percent of the fuel refined will be renewable diesel and naphtha (distilled) fuels for motor vehicles. AltAir fuels also announced plans to build a facility that would produce 100 million gallons/year of fuel from camelina grown in the Pacific Northwest and southwestern Canada. The seeds would be pressed regionally, refined into fuel in northwestern Washington and piped to SeaTac Airport via the existing infrastructure.

Currently, the company has contracts with about 70 dry land wheat farmers, most of them in Montana and the Dakotas, with between 10,000 and 12,000 acres in cultivation. Johnson says Sustainable Oils only contracts for the crop it has capacity for, so the growth in camelina production has been relatively slow during what he describes as a transition between demonstration and commercial operations.

Much of Sustainable Oils’ focus to date has gone to developing a professional seed company so that an individual farmer “has confidence that the seed he is buying from us has been tested in the conditions he will be growing it in,” says Johnson. As such, the company has conducted more than 140 field tests across North America, making it the top research company developing camelina seed. (Thirteen companies founded a North American Camelina Trade Association last year.)

Pat Field, a farmer near Pendroy, Montana, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountain Front, has about 4,000 total acres cultivated this year, a quarter of it in camelina. This is his fourth year growing the crop and he was glowing during this interview that a late-June thunderstorm had dropped about a half-inch of rain overnight. “We’ve had more than eight inches since the first of April,” he says.

The first year he grew camelina was a different story. Montana wheat farmers were suffering from drought, but Field’s camelina crop produced at about a third of the usual yield while his wheat crop was at about 10 percent. “It just excited me,” Field says, to see camelina produce at that level with so little moisture. This is the fourth year he’s grown camelina, along with other rotation crops, including alfalfa, lentils and flax. He says he uses about half as much fertilizer for camelina as he does for wheat and that it requires fewer pesticides.

Johnson says other farmers have reported camelina improves the soil for wheat because its deep taproot aerates the soil. Field says camelina fits well into a rotation with wheat. He recently viewed a wheat crop where camelina had grown the year before. “It’s one of the nicest fields of wheat I’ve had in a long time,” he says. “I was impressed.”

The biggest holdup, he adds, is getting approval for the meal as a livestock feed. Currently the meal left after refining is about 60 percent of the weight of the crop, and about 42 percent of that is protein. It can be sold as protein at about the price of soybeans and is approved in a small ration for fryer chickens and feedlot beef but would have considerably more dollar value as livestock feed.

Johnson says he believes the Food and Drug Administration will approve camelina meal this year as a general livestock feed. It appears to have unique benefits for laying hens. Field reports that tests conducted by Gluten Free Montana, a local consortium of growers and researchers, have shown that the ‘omega-3 (in camelina) follows through to the eggs’ of chickens and also to milk from cows that feed on it. Gluten Free Montana is interested in establishing its own crushing and refining operation and has a ready-made market for camelina meal in nearby Hutterite colonies that run commercial chicken and egg operations.

Field’s seed, fertilizer and pesticide costs for camelina production are about $55/acre. Sustainable Oils pays farmers by the pound for the camelina, with payments averaging $150 to $200 an acre, Johnson says. The seed is crushed at Montana Specialty Mills in Great Falls, and the oil is shipped to a refinery.

Farmers are at the center of Sustainable Oils’ efforts. “Like everything else new, there are certain things we believed until the reality of planting it in the ground came to be,” Johnson says. “It’s a biological system – an interactive process – and our farmers are teaching us what’s going on. We try to bring the best agronomy to reduce their risk as well. We’ve shown that in less than a year, you can plant a seed and fly an airplane.”

He adds that at this point the certification process for the oil and meal are moving forward and the company is taking time to “insure that our supply chains are efficient and scaled up deliberately. With any fuel, logistics are critical and it makes sense to develop the business as locally as possible, centered around the refinery.”

Johnson expects to rapidly scale-up the business beginning in 2011. “I would be very disappointed if we weren’t contracting 50,000 acres in the next year, given the commitments in the marketplace and coming down from the government. And we are working on strategic contracts for the future that become really big numbers in 2012.”

For a little-known crop with ancient roots that has remained in the shadows for centuries, such an accomplishment would be no small task.

Joan Melcher, a freelance journalist living in Missoula, Montana, is a contributor to Miller-McCune.com and Planet-Profit Report. Recent stories also have appeared in Via magazine and High Country News.

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