Camelina, crambe and prized fatty acids: food for thought

Special fatty acids from tropical crops are used in many chemical products derived from vegetable oils. As a result, EU manufacturers are exposed to import price fluctuations. We could source these acids from home-grown crops instead, say EU-funded researchers whose work could help boost competitiveness.

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  Algeria
  Argentina
  Australia
  Austria
  Bangladesh
  Belarus
  Belgium
  Benin
  Bolivia
  Bosnia and Herzegovina
  Brazil
  Bulgaria
  Burkina Faso
  Cambodia
  Cameroon
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  Cape Verde
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  Colombia
  Costa Rica
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Published: 14 March 2019  
Related theme(s) and subtheme(s)
Industrial researchMaterials & products
Research policyHorizon 2020
Success storiesIndustrial research
Countries involved in the project described in the article
France  |  Germany  |  Greece  |  Italy  |  Lithuania  |  Netherlands  |  Poland  |  United Kingdom
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Camelina, crambe and prized fatty acids: food for thought

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© Okea #47980958, 2019 source: stock.adobe.com

The EU-funded project COSMOS is refining Europe’s answer to palm kernel, coconut and castor oil: the prized fatty acids they contain could instead be gained from camelina and crambe, the partners note.

‘COSMOS focuses on two special types of fatty acid that are not present in the more common European oilseed crops,’ says project coordinator Rolf Blaauw of Stichting Wageningen Research, the Netherlands, outlining advances in the research as of October 2018.

These acids are used to make goods as varied as detergents and cosmetics. To facilitate a potential transition towards the indigenous oil crops proposed as alternative sources, COSMOS is striving to produce better varieties, improve methods for their cultivation and processing into a variety of useful substances, and devise innovative uses both for these substances and any left-over plant matter.

Progress has been made on all fronts, Blaauw explains. New seed lines have notably been developed, as have more effective and less costly processes.

Other outcomes include the development of a new class of lubricants suitable for particularly demanding industrial applications. And there was a bonus find, Blaauw notes. Much to the researchers’ surprise, it appears that the targeted fatty acids could also be gained from insects fed with camelina and crambe crop residues.

Winsome wallflowers

Camelina and crambe are low-input crops that can be grown even in marginal soils, Blaauw says. Unlike crambe, which has never been an important crop in Europe, camelina – also known as false flax – was once widely cultivated across the continent, but was later upstaged by rapeseed.

Recently, interest in both crambe and camelina has been growing, with the latter notably attracting attention in view of its potential as a source of aviation biofuel, Blaauw observes.

While the desired fatty acids can be gained from these plants, a tweak is required to do so. ‘The oils of these two crops don’t contain the same fatty acids as coconut and palm kernel by nature,’ he says. ‘They contain fatty acids whose chemical chain is longer.’

COSMOS uses chemistry to cut these structures into two similar halves, which respectively replicate the relevant ones usually gained from tropical oils. The project’s advances to date include two patents for improved catalysts that enable a more efficient process for this step, Blaauw adds.

In recapping on the project’s work and achievements to date, he also reports a setback: some of the new seed lines developed in COSMOS were produced using a technique that has recently been classified as subject to GMO legislation in the EU.

While gene modification is involved, the regulation’s applicability to the technique in question was debatable for various reasons, says Blaauw. ‘For scientists, it’s difficult to understand this decision, but we will just have to deal with it,’ he comments.

The ruling, which was only issued in July 2018, means that it will be harder to take the affected seed lines forward, he explains. However, the project has other improved varieties up its sleeve.

Even greener growth

Along with Europe’s reliance on tropical oils, COSMOS hopes to help reduce its dependence on imported protein. The project is notably trialling biorefineries as a way to address this issue and strengthen the case for crambe and camelina.

Neither crop is unreservedly suitable as feed for cows, Blaauw says, but protein and fat harvested from insects that thrive on these plants could be used for this and many other purposes.

‘For our approach to be economically feasible and sustainable, we need to find the highest value for what remains after oil extraction,’ he points out. ‘You could say that by feeding the seed meal to insects we indirectly increase the yield of oil per hectare.’

Converting residues into resources is an attractive proposition in itself. COSMOS uses black soldier fly larvae to do so – and, on closer inspection, the fat produced in this way was found to include the very acids the researchers set out to extract from the crops, Blaauw explains.

Fatty acids on the fly? It appears that the chemical cleaving the COSMOS partners propose is not the only way for Europe to source alternatives to extracts from tropical oils in its own backyard, Blaauw comments.

Following project end in August 2019, more research and development will be needed to develop its innovations to the level of technology readiness required for potential exploitation by industry. A pilot plant would be a logical next step, if the funding can be secured, Blaauw concludes.

Project details

  • Project acronym: COSMOS
  • Participants: Netherlands (Coordinator), France, Poland, Lithuania, Greece, Germany, UK, Spain, Italy
  • Project N°: 635405
  • Total costs: € 10 811 197
  • EU contribution: € 10 811 197
  • Duration: March 2015 to August 2019

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