Corn is beginning to seem more and more like the has-been-that-never-was of the biofuel feedstock scene. An inedible, weedy-looking plant called crambe is the latest competitor to come along and stick a fork in it. Never heard of crambe? Then you haven’t been spending enough time in North Dakota.
The Icing on the Crambe
Crambe is a drought-tolerant plant that’s economical to grow in the U.S. compared to other biofuel feedstock such as soybeans. The University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) has developed technology that can convert crambe seed oil (and other feedstock) into biofuels that are virtually identical to petroleum fuels. The EERC has just announced a one million dollar grant to demonstrate the commercial viability of the process.
A Brief History of Crambe
Crambe is an inedible Mediterranean native that was introduced to the U.S. in the 1940′s and established in several states. In addition to its potential as a biofuel, crambe oil is used to manufacture synthetic rubber, as well as erucic acid-based materials like plastic film and nylon. It’s also used for lubrication and corrosion control.
Crambe: But Wait, There’s More
The U.S. currently gets its supply of erucic acid primarily from imported rapeseed oil – to the tune of 40 million pounds annually. Crambe oil looks promising as a domestic source because it contains up to 9% more erucic acid than rapeseed, and it’s better suited to the U.S. climate.
Earth to Corn: Buh-Bye
Corn is rapidly losing its place (if it ever really had one) as the pivotal element in the biofuel picture. Non-food plants like crambe and algae are front and center in the next wave of fuel production. There is even a place for animal carcasses. And new bacteria-produced plastics may soon make corn bio-plastics obsolete.
If the end is in sight for corn biofuel, it’s not too hard to imagine the day when King Coal topples off its throne, too. It will never disappear completely as a fuel source, but we won’t be sacrificing the world at its alter any more.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.