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Industrial crop oils eyed for jet-engine biofuel

The economics of using camelina and carinata oils to brew up biofuel in Saskatchewan for jet aircraft will be the subject of a new study with federal backing.

Ag-West Bio, a federally- and provincially-funded bioscience investment fund, will lead a study reviewing the possibilities for feedstock production, processing requirements and “potential commercial partners,” and “seamless” logistics and infrastructure for such a venture.

“With the aviation industry committed to developing sustainable biofuels, there appears to be huge potential in this area, both for producers, and for the province as a whole in downstream processing,” Mike Cey, Ag-West Bio’s vice-president for corporate and business development, said in a federal release last week.

The Saskatoon-based organization said it will use “external service providers” to interview industry experts and prospective customers, and review research information to complete the three components of the feasibility report.

“This study will allow us to make informed decisions in order to map out the best path forward in further developing this exciting opportunity in Saskatchewan,” Cey said.

The federal government said Sept. 22 it will put up over $150,000 in Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program (CAAP) funding for the study.

Camelina sativa (camelina) and Brassica carinata (carinata) are considered the two industrial non-food crops “showing the most promise” for use in “drop-in” bio-based jet fuel, Ag-West Bio said in a separate release.

“Drop-in” means the fuel’s specifications must be the same as petroleum-based jet fuel and need no special storage or handling. This is a “key requirement of the airline industry” for such a fuel, Ag-West Bio said.

Jet fuels are generally kerosene-based or a kerosene-gasoline combination made specifically for use in jet turbine units. Globally, jet fuel consumption — apart from military use — is now over 319 billion litres per year and rising, Ag-West Bio noted, and various airlines and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have stated a goal to be “carbon-neutral” by the year 2020.

To that end, the ASTM (the American Society for Testing Materials), which approves fuel specifications worldwide, in July announced its approval the use of up to a 50 per cent blend of biofuels (ASTM D7566), which by 2020 could translate to over four billion litres of bio-based jet fuel in production worldwide, Ag-West Bio said.

“Preferable”

There’s no one bio-based feedstock source that could satisfy that market requirement worldwide, which means looking at “multiple” biomass feedstock options such as food-grade oils from canola, soy, palm and/or safflower, as well as animal fats and waste oils from the food processing industry.

“However, non-food crops are preferable,” Ag-West Bio said, noting carinata, camelina, crambe, algae and jatropha. “The most likely scenario is a small number of validated oil crops as one type of biomass feedstock.”

Currently, the organization said, camelina is “the most tested industrial oil for jet fuel feedstock in the world.”

It’s “critical” that the economic feasibility of such work be confirmed early “in order to map out the best path forward in developing this emerging industry,” the organization said.

For example, “mustard producers have invested research money into the development of carinata as a cropping option, but we need to know that the crop can be profitable for producers as well as all segments of the value chain,” Kevin Hursh, executive director of the Saskatchewan Mustard Development Commission (SMDC), said in Ag-West Bio’s release.

Along with the SMDC and the federal agriculture department, Ag-West Bio’s steering committee for this study includes WestJet, along with Mustard 21 Canada Inc., Agrisoma Biosciences Inc. and Enterprise Saskatchewan, a provincial economic development corporation.

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