A new breed of crops to help save the planet
Although fossil oils are dwindling, they are still our main energy source and continue to dominate the global chemical industry. However, the European Union (EU)-funded research project ICON helped breed crops to produce high-value plant oils that are expected to break the chemical sector's dependence on petroleum.
Using plant material, the project’s researchers not only replaced fossil material to produce new industrial chemicals, but they also saved energy from processing. The resulting high-yielding sustainable oil crops have produced oils for lubricants and the chemical industry, with substantial environmental benefits, energy savings and economic returns for farmers.
“With fossil fuels running out, we need to think more about renewable resources,” says ICON’s project coordinator Sten Stymne from SLU, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. “Using plant resources for our chemicals will save a lot of energy and costs, meaning that we could compete economically with fossil oil industry. At the same time, this is a great way to make a positive impact on our climate,” he comments.
While plant oils cannot be produced on sufficient scale to replace fossil fuels, they can have an impact on the chemical sector. “Petrochemical demand for hydrocarbons is less than a tenth of that of fuel demand, so biological materials such as plant oils are the only viable renewable alternatives,” adds Stymne.
Indeed, the energy saving alone from processing the crops could be considerable. Cracking fossil hydrocarbons and turning them into the desired chemicals requires more energy than it is contained in the final product. That means plant material in the chemical industry could not only replace the fossil material contained in the final product, but also save substantial energy during the processing.
The three crops used in the project were genetically engineered to produce wax ester oils, which are much more resistant to high temperatures and pressures than normal plant oils, improving their industrial value.
None of the three crops are used for human consumption, as the researchers did not want to risk them inadvertently mixing with seeds used for food purposes, nor did they want to divert any significant land use from food production.
“We wanted to show the public that genetic engineering of plants can be used to replace fossil oil with renewable resources,” says Stymne. “In this way, ICON project can act as an 'icebreaker' for gene modification in farm products.”
According to Stymne, the commercial potential is significant. “The market for lubricants in Europe is about 7 million tons a year and globally about 50 million tons. But if plant oil production is tripled, it could offset 40% of the chemical oil production from fossil fuels,” he says.
Plant oils can eventually be used more widely in the chemicals sector - to make everything from plastics to cosmetics – and they would be far less energy intensive than fossil oils. “We are introducing the chemical factory into the seed. That means breeding crops to be factories that use water and carbon dioxide as building blocks and the Sun as the energy source. The result is a quiet, non-polluting and nice looking ‘chemical’ factory,” concludes Stymne.