Knowledge Based Bio-Economy


Novel uses of plant oils

Project Acronym: ICON

Title of project: Industrial crops producing added value oils for novel chemicals

Research area: Biotechnologies (Green oil - plants providing oils of the future)

Contract No: 211400

EU Contribution: 5,791 000 EURO

Start date: March 2008

Duration: 48 Months


It is generally recognised that fossil oil reserves are finite leading to increased research looking for substitutes for petroleum based products.

While there are a wide range of alternatives to using fossil fuels for energy production, only biological materials can replace lubricants and industrial chemicals derived from fossil oil. Processing of fossil oils is an energy intensive process. Cracking fossil hydrocarbons and building the desired chemicals using advanced organic chemistry usually requires many times more energy than is contained in the final product, energy that could be saved by developing innovative oil crops that produce special oils for specific requirements. Thus, using plant material in the chemical industry does not only replace the fossil material contained in the final product but also saves substantial processing energy.

From a chemical viewpoint the long chain fatty acids in plant seed oils are similar in composition to fossil hydrocarbons making various seeds oils of particular interest. Such seed oils show a wide variation in composition between different plant species. Many of the oil qualities found in wild species would be very attractive for the chemical industry if they could be obtained at moderate costs in bulk quantities and with a secure supply. The use of genetic engineering of vegetable oil qualities in existing high yielding oil crops could in a relatively short time frame make such products available.

This project aims at developing such added value oils in existing industrial oil crops mainly in form of various wax esters particularly suited for use in lubrication. This project will develop knowledge of plant lipid cellular metabolism, using specialist expertise of the scientific groups assembled as the truly global scientific endeavor (in addition to 12 European partners in the project, 13 other come from China, USA, Canada and Australia). This should enable the incorporation of a wide range of new oil properties of industrial interest in oil crops. Since the genetic engineering technologies that are used in the project continue to raise public concern in Europe, the project intends to communicate its ideas, expectations and results to the public, engaging in an open debate on methods, ethics, benefits, risks and risk assessment.

Expected Impact

If brought to the marketplace the results from this project should result in additional raw materials for the lubrication industry while global demand for high value industrial oils could also benefit farmers receiving premium prices for these new crops. In contrast to the cultivation of energy crops, the relatively small area needed to grow industrial oilseed crops should not divert any significant land use to affect food production. As far as commercial impact in Europe is concerned, this will reflect existing and future trends in the attitude to cultivation of genetically modified crops in Europe. In this context it is important to note that the project has selected two crops, Crambe abyssinica and Brassica carinata that are not used in food production due to their high content of erucic acid. They do not easily intercross with related food crops, such as rapeseed or other Brassica crops and hence have a higher chance of being seen as a positive example of the opportunities offered by modern plant breeding techniques.

Expected Results

The results will be derived from the application of recent developments in plant biotechnology to genetically engineer oil crops to produce oils with the desired qualities of interest to industry. It will produce strains of Crambe abyssinica and Brassica carinata modified to switch from producing triglycerides to making wax esters that are much more resistant to high temperatures and pressures than normal plant oils. The research partners will introduce two enzymes into the seeds of these species, which are not used as food crops, in order to modify the plant triglycerides. The introduction of a fatty acid reductase that converts some of the fatty acids to fatty alcohols and a wax synthase that links the fatty alcohol to other fatty acids will result in seeds producing wax esters. The researchers have already (January 2011) demonstrated the feasibility of the approach by achieving Crambe plants with up to 50% of wax esters in its seed oil.

The resulting oils will be evaluated as lubricants, a use reflecting their high oxidation and hydrolytic stabilities. Further genetic modification will yield a range of different wax ester qualities with varying melting points and other features that improve their uses as lubricants. Waxes with hydroxy, branched and medium chain length should be produced. Further biological investigations will determine the germination characteristics of the modified seeds. In addition the agronomic value of Crambe will be improved using non-GM techniques to increase the resistance to infection by Altenaria. The project will also develop novel uses of plant seed leftovers remaining after oil extrusion, notably as renewable and eco-friendly bioplastics.

Website of


Coordinator: Sten Stymne,


Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden,


Axel Christernsson International, Sweden,

Bayer Bioscience NV, Belgium,

Hubei University, China,

University of Gdansk, Poland,

Rothamsted Research Limited, UK,

Friedrich-Wilhelms-University Bonn, Germany,

Georg-August-University Goettingen, Germany,

RWTH University Aachen, Germany,

National Research Centre, France,

The University of Warwick, UK,

Plant Research International B.V., Netherlands,

Innventia, Sweden,

University of Alberta, Canada,

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia,

Carleton University, Canada,

Donald Danford Plant Science Center, USA,

University Of Guelph, Canada,

Iowa State University of Science And Technology, USA,

National Research Council of Canada’s Plant Biotechnical Institute, Canada,

University Of Saskatchewan, Canada,

Michigan State University, USA,

United States Department of Agriculture, USA,

University of British Columbia, Canada,

University of Nebraska, USA,