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The development of Euphorbia lagascae as a new oil crop within the European community

Contract nr: FAIR-CT98-4460
Project nr: 4460
Project type: CA
Starting date: 04/01/1999
Duration: 18 months
Total cost: 208,900 EUR
EC Contribution: 208,900 EUR
Scientific Officer: Jean-Pierre PIGEOLET
Research topic: Biomass production (food, feed, non-food and energy uses)
Acronym: Euphorbia lagascae

The oleochemical industry supplies a wide range of petrochemical products which are used in the lubricants, coatings, plastics and hydraulic oils sectors. The high environmental burden caused by the use of non-renewable fossil fuels has lead to the search for vegetable oil-based alternatives. Renewable vegetable oils, which are non-toxic, biodegradable, non-polluting in water courses, and relatively harmless to the environment could offer significant advantages over fossil fuel- derived products.
Initiatives, supported both by national and European governments, have identified oilseed crops capable of producing vegetable oils with potential industrial applications. The oil of one such species, Euphorbia lagascae, was identified as producing an oil of interest in the lubricants, plasticisers, and coatings sectors.
The botanical family of the spurge (Euphorbiaceae) are considered world-wide as a novel industrial oilseed. Of the ten species within the plant family under consideration as novel oilseeds, the herbaceous Euphorbia lathyris and arborescent Jatropha curcas have been the most widely investigated. Euphorbia lagascae is a further interesting candidate.
A preliminary investigation of the species was undertaken as part of the EC-funded VOSFA project (contract AIR2-CT93-1817) from 1994-98. The species studied within the VOSFA project were selected for evaluation based upon their fatty acid composition rather than their agronomic characteristics. Euphorbia lagascae was shown to be a productive species when grown under irrigated conditions in Spain, with yields of up to 5,000 kg/ha, but seed shattering was a problem. In south-west England, yields from spring sowing were less, at 1.1 t/ha, but due to seed dehiscence, yields were underestimated. Seed oil contents were consistently high, containing up to 49% oil and having 52-65% of the target, vernolic fatty acid. The crop was responsive to the control of weeds, and crop safe and effective pre- and post-emergence herbicides were identified in the UK and Spain. The species was shown to be adapted to Mediterranean and Western European conditions, with the major factor limiting commercialisation being its seed dehiscence. It is hoped that this can be overcome when recently developed non-dehiscent genotypes become available.
Oil recovery was technically straightforward, with high oil recovery rates using flaking, pressing and hexane extraction techniques, but irritating compounds released during handling indicated the need for certain safety measures in the working place. This aspect lead to a further additional study on the toxicity of Euphorbia lagascae by Hecker and Gminski, also funded within the VOSFA project. They identified the molecular structures of two factors within the oil leading to skin irritation and tumor promoting activity in mice. They concluded, however, that inexpensive and simple safety precautions in the workplace would overcome the problem and that in the longer term using classical breeding and/or gene technology, plant varieties could be developed which are low or free of the toxins responsible.
Studies on the industrial uses of Euphorbia oil indicated good oxidative and thermal stability and, because of the presence of anti-oxidative components, the oxidative stability was better than that of rapeseed oil. Its overall lubricant performance in terms of anti-wear was acceptable and its biodegradability was satisfactory.
Significant progress has been made in recent years in developing understanding and knowledge of the species Euphorbia lagascae. However, there are barriers to its commercialisation within the European Community which must be defined and overcome if sustainable applications are to be developed. This Concerted Action, by collating and evaluating existing information on crop development, production potential, oil composition and quality, oil extraction and industrial applications, will define such a strategy for the species.

This Concerted Action seeks to collate and evaluate existing information on crop development, production potential, oil composition and quality, oil extraction and industrial applications of the species Euphorbia lagascae. It will assess the suitability of Euphorbia lagascae for commercialisation to the benefit of European agriculture and the oleochemical industry, and prepare a development programme to overcome current limitations and fully develop commercially sustainable applications for the crop.

These objectives will be achieved by bringing together leading specialists from industry, research institutes and universities, from five EU countries and 12 organisations which have working experience of the crop or related knowledge of oilseed crops in the production, processing and marketing sectors. Two workshops will be organised to review current knowledge, summarise the information presented, identify gaps in current understanding and, after discussion, propose strategies for future research leading to development. The seed of Euphorbia lagascae contains up to 50% oil of which up to 60% is vernolic acid. Potential uses of the oil include the sectors of coatings, lubricants and plastics. Vernolic acid, the C:18 epoxy fatty acid, has potential uses as a drying solvent in alkyd resin paints. Paints formulated with vernolic acid would greatly reduce volatile organic compound (VOC) air pollution that occurs with the volatilization of alkyd resins in conventional paints. In the United States, amendments to clean air acts are calling for reductions in VOCs. The development of the species from a wild to a domesticated species is very recent, and two EU RT&D projects (SONCA and VOSFA) have included some study of the species. The seed is naturally dehiscence, but progress has been made in developing non-shattering material. Evaluation in Northern and Southern Europe has confirmed its high oil production potential (yields of up to 2.5t/ha) and has highlighted differences in crop agronomy between locations. The crop contains an irritant component, but progress has been made in small-scale oil extraction where steam pre-treatment may alleviate possible toxic effects. This CA would bring together research workers from across Europe to collect and collate the current state of knowledge from all partners and stages in the production chain, and to develop sound and feasible long-term development plans for commercialisation of the crop.

Current situation/results:
The first workshop was held in Winchester, UK on 11-14 September 1999. It reviewed the current state of knowledge on the crop under the technical areas of agronomy, breeding, processing, markets and safety. The workshop was attended by 18 participants, presenting 16 papers and representing 13 organisations from the UK, Germany, Spain and Holland. Key issues relating to the crops development were identified. These included, the lack of quantitative methods for assessment of irritant compounds in the Euphorbiace which would be essential for making rapid progress in plant breeding improvement programmes; the limited availability of information on the performance of products derived from Euphorbia oil; the need for enclosed processing systems or novel processing technologies for the seed; and the lack of information on the economics of production, market value and cost of competitor or related oils.
These issues were further investigated and discussed at the second workshop held on 27-28 March 2000 in Cambridge UK. 25 participants, presenting 9 papers attended the workshop. Dr Richard Roseberg working at Oregon State University was invited to present an overview of his agronomy research on Euphorbia. Representatives of the Commission and of the Ministry of Agricultural Fisheries and Food in UK were also attending the workshop. The participants pointed out two main issues to be further addressed. On the one hand, an important number of breeding experiments has to be undertaken in order to solve the critical problem of seed toxicity. On the other hand, the market feasability is an important issue that has to go into closely in comparison with other oil crops markets (linseed, sunflowers, rapeseed). The final result of this concerted action will be the realisation of an Euphorbia handbook. This will contain information on plant breeding, agronomy, oil extraction, markets, uses, economics, safety and toxicology. This handbook should be published in October 2000 and available on the web.

Martin Andrew FROMENT
Wergs Road
UK-WV6 8TQ Wolverhampton
Tel.: +44 1962 77 97 65
Fax: +44 1962 77 97 39


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