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Camelina: A novel oilseed crop (an overview)

Key Takeaways

  • Supported by major industry players in the clean energy space, camelina’s high oil content and other features make it an excellent choice for advanced biofuel feedstocks.
  • Planting camelina on otherwise idle acres provides many of the soil benefits of a cover crop, including erosion and weed control, added biodiversity, and reduced nutrient leaching.
  • Camelina’s potential goes beyond biofuel and soil health; the meal from the crush process produces a high-value animal feed ration and research is currently underway on creating bioplastics from camelina.

Camelina is gaining attention as a novel oilseed crop produced as a feedstock for renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel. With its short growing season, drought tolerance, and low fertility demand, camelina is an attractive option for farmers to add a new revenue source without displacing their primary crops. Grown on idle or fallow land, camelina provides many of the same soil benefits as a cover crop and encourages the adoption of core regenerative agriculture practices including maintaining a living root in the ground, providing ground cover and reducing erosion and nutrient runoff.

What is Camelina?

Camelina, scientific name Camelina Sativa, is a broadleaf oilseed crop from the Brassicaceae family, alongside familiar crops like mustard and rapeseed. Also known as ‘False Flax’ or ‘Gold-of-pleasure’, camelina typically grows 2-3 feet tall, produces small light-yellow flowers, and has very small seeds (400,000 seeds per pound). Camelina has a brassica taproot system that grows to about 18 inches deep and 1/2 inch wide.  

Native to Europe and Central Asia, it is a short season crop, maturing within 85 to 100 growing days after planting. Camelina is a cool season annual with both spring and winter varieties and is well adapted to the temperate climate zone.  It is particularly resilient to the cold, with seeds germinating at temperatures as low as 34°F. Because of its hardiness, camelina is an excellent winter crop or can be planted very early in the spring, long before many other crops.

Camelina requires only 4-6” of water and performs well under drought stress conditions, although studies have shown higher yields with increased precipitation up to 25 inches total. Camelina prefers well-drained soil and does not tolerate standing water well.

Camelina yields vary widely depending on conditions, with reports of yields ranging from 350 lbs/acre to over 2,000 lbs/acre. While more research is needed, average yields appear to range from 800-1,500 lbs/acre across environments.

Products Made from Camelina

Historically, camelina has been used in diverse ways from lamp oil, to cooking oil and salad dressing, to livestock fodder and even fiber for brooms.

In the modern world, in addition to being a biofuel feedstock, camelina is still produced as a source of cooking oil, salad dressings, and as an omega-3 supplement. Today it is also used in cosmetics, skin care products, and soaps.

Cooking

Camelina oil is recognized as a nutritional powerhouse high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in saturated fatty acids. It is particularly high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 known for its cardiovascular benefits. Beyond that, the oil is rich in vitamins and antioxidants and has a light, nutty flavor.

While camelina oil shares similarities with flaxseed oil, it has a significantly longer shelf life. This is due to the large quantity of gamma-tocopherol (Vitamin E) present in the oil.

Animal Feed

The crush process to extract oil from camelina grain also produces meal which is a high-value feed for livestock. Studies show that camelina meal has a high concentration of both crude protein and omega-3 & omega-6 fatty acids, making it an attractive feed ingredient. Although the presence of glucosinolates in camelina causes some concern, certain extraction processes and selective breeding are known solutions to the problem. To date, the FDA has approved the inclusion of camelina meal up to 10% of feed for beef cattle, poultry, and pigs.

Bioplastics

The production of bioplastics is another exciting possibility with camelina.  Organizations like Yield10 Bioscience are working towards producing sustainable, low-cost polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHAs) bioplastic materials from specially engineered camelina lines. PHAs are a group of biodegradable biopolymers found in nature that serve as a versatile base for creating resins which, when heated, can be molded into a variety of products— including films, packaging materials, and items for food service.

Soil Benefits of Camelina

Recently, camelina has seen increasing popularity as a cover crop or in cover crop blends. Camelina fulfills four of the five core regenerative agriculture principles: keep the ground covered, maintain a living root, reduce tillage, and increase biodiversity. Since camelina is not a candidate for livestock forage, it doesn’t qualify for the fifth principle of integrating livestock.

Planting camelina into existing stubble maintains continuous ground cover from the previous crop to the following one. A broadleaf brassica, camelina is a good rotational option with grasses to add biodiversity and control for insects, diseases, and weeds.

Beyond the core principles, camelina offers other potential benefits to cropping systems. Camelina can suppress weeds with its early germination, rapid growth, and canopy architecture. It even has the potential to increase yields in primary crops. One study found that corn following a cover crop of camelina shows increased yields and lower amounts of root disease compared to corn following cereal rye. This is likely due to camelina’s lower biomass, which ties up less nitrogen and potentially releases nutrients more quickly to the following crop.

As such, integrating camelina into crop rotations promotes the long-term regeneration of soil health while helping growers increase productivity and profitability.

Camelina: The Future of Energy

For more than a decade, camelina has been explored as a feedstock for sustainable fuels. The U.S. Navy and the commercial aviation industry began testing it as early as 2010 in response to volatile oil prices, energy independence concerns, and the environmental impact of carbon emissions. The result was a successful flight in 2010 by an F-18 fighter plane fueled with a blend of 50% petroleum-based and 50% camelina-based jet fuel!

More recently, the Net Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050 Scenario has gained traction. To align with the scenario, carbon dioxide emissions from the transport sector will need to fall by more than 3% per year until 2030—much of that coming from hard-to-abate sectors including the aviation, maritime, and long-haul trucking industries.

Advanced biofuels such as sustainable aviation fuel and renewable diesel are ‘drop-in’ fuels that are compatible with existing engines. They could pave the way for a more sustainable energy future without requiring costly infrastructure upgrades— a vision supported by the International Energy Agency’s prediction that biofuel demand will expand by 10.4 billion gallons between 2023-2028.

Camelina: An Ideal Feedstock for Biofuel

According to a study from 2021, when camelina is grown as a double crop or in rotation with wheat, it has the potential to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by up to 60% compared to petroleum diesel.

Camelina is an excellent choice for biofuel feedstock because of its ability to grow under stress conditions, on marginal land, and with low water and fertilizer inputs. With a short growing season and excellent winter hardiness, it can be planted as a winter crop, double-crop, or in a fallow rotation. When planted in this way, camelina avoids interfering with food production, ultimately steering clear of the ‘food vs fuel’ controversy and concerns about indirect land use change (ILUC).

Once the camelina grain is harvested, it is transported to a crushing facility, where the oil is extracted from the grain. This can be achieved through mechanical pressing, where the seeds are crushed and pressed, or solvent extraction, which uses a solvent to dissolve the oil and then separates it from the remaining grain meal. After extraction, the camelina oil undergoes refinement to remove impurities and enhance its quality.

The Future of Camelina as a Low-Carbon Fuel

As the move towards low-emission transport gains momentum, substantial investments have been made in this sector. It comes as no surprise, then, that the camelina oil market is estimated to reach $500 Million by 2030.

Considering the anticipated market demand for biofuel feedstocks, the emphasis on diversifying crop production becomes even more significant. Traditional feedstocks like soybeans, corn, and canola have long dominated the biofuel industry, and their demand is expected to continue rising. However, to meet the escalating demand and ensure a sustainable and resilient agricultural sector, it’s imperative to explore novel oilseed crops such as camelina.

Conclusion

As the world strides towards Net Zero emissions, the role of diversified crop production in the biofuel industry cannot be overstated. While traditional feedstocks will continue to play a vital role, the inclusion of new oilseed crops like camelina is essential to meet the growing demand sustainably. This approach not only supports the expansion of the biofuels market but also aligns with the overall sustainability of the agricultural sector.

Learn about growing Camelina