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Canola is for more than just oil

Biodiesel fuels Saskatoon buses in efficiency trials.


November 15, 2007
By Donna Fleury

Canola oil is already recognized as one of the healthiest oil choices for food
use, both for consumer and food processing uses. However, canola oil also has
many alternative non-edible uses, ranging from biofuels and plastics to cosmetics
and printing inks. The potential opportunities are limitless, but economics
and commercial viability will dictate which uses move forward.

One rapidly growing area of interest is in biodiesel as an alternative fuel.
Canola oil makes a good product, and for growers the advantage is that lower
quality canola can be used, providing an alternate market. "However, canola
oil is still a fairly expensive oil, so the cost of using canola as a feedstock
for biodiesel is still fairly high," explains Dave Hickling, vice-president
of Canola Utilization with the Council. "There are no large scale commercial
processing facilities yet in Canada, although biodiesel is quite popular in
Europe."

Germany, for example, uses several million tonnes of canola for biodiesel annually,
but in Canada it is a matter of a few thousand tonnes right now. "Biodiesel
is going to be something that will potentially grow, and a market that a lot
of growers could potentially participate in, but we're not there yet,"
he adds.

Powering the big yellow bus
The Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission (SCDC) has done a lot of research
over the past few years looking at the impacts of using biodiesel to improve
fuel lubricity. "We have a lot of research results showing that even at
very low levels of one to two percent, biodiesel significantly improves fuel
lubricity and fuel economy," explains Roy Button, executive director of
the SCDC. "We're currently conducting a research project with the City
of Saskatoon on their buses."

The project is trying to determine the impact of using five percent biodiesel
on fuel quality, fuel efficiency and engine wear, however results are not yet
available.

For Brad Hanmer, a grower from Govan, Saskatchewan, chair of the Biodiesel
Association of Canada, and president of the Saskatchewan Canola Growers Association,
the biggest thing that excites him about being involved in the biodiesel movement
is that it opens up a whole new market segment. "Typically, if we sell
more canola oil to another country, it just displaces another product in that
marketplace. But using canola for biodiesel is a whole new use that will create
a brand new demand."

Regardless of what feedstock or oil is used to make biodiesel, Hanmer thinks
it will have a huge positive influence on our markets, because it is going to
take more oil off world markets. Hanmer also sees opportunities for new canola
varieties specifically bred for biodiesel production as the biodiesel industry
grows to a more commercial size.

"The federal government has a Renewable Fuel Strategy that has laid out
expectations of 500 million litres of biodiesel being produced in Canada by
2010," explains Hanmer. "If we take a look at what those numbers really
mean, it's very exciting. Even using one percent biodiesel would mean one million
acres of canola in Canada would go into the production of biodiesel."

Today, Canada uses 24 billion litres of diesel fuel in the transportation sector.
Hanmer notes there are two commercial biodiesel plants being constructed in
Ontario. In Saskatchewan, there is one small biodiesel plant owned by Milligan
Bio-Tech, and the bioprocessing facility at the University of Saskatchewan produces
biodiesel with canola for the SCDC projects.

"We see biodiesel as a great enhancement to the petroleum industry to
help them leverage their oil supply, not as a competitor," says Hanmer.
"Biodiesel will never be able to compete on a unit by unit basis with petroleum,
and we don't intend to even try."

Button agrees, adding, "There is a huge market for fuel and if fuel prices
continue to rise, then renewable or alternative fuels at some point will be
required. It's good to start research now into things like biodiesel from canola,
so we can start looking at these products and evaluate how effective they can
be." With fuel prices rising, biodiesel is becoming more competitive.

"In Europe it's more competitive, especially in countries like Germany,"
says Button. "The real drivers for biodiesel there are because they don't
produce their own fuel, the high cost of petroleum diesel (approximately Cdn$1.20
per litre in Europe) and the large 'green' movement." The economic benefits
of developing biodiesel inside the country plus tax incentives translate to
a lot of production there.

"In the US, the real incentive is their goal of fuel security, and their
willingness to pay a bit more up-front for those products if they have better
security." The US military is one of the largest users of biodiesel in
the US today. Canada presently has a good fuel supply and the incentives are
limited, so the drivers are not as obvious. Button adds that commercialization
will be dependent on the economics of the various factors, such as costs of
the feed stock, costs of processing, the value of the end product and competition
from other existing products.

Other industrial uses of canola oil
"There are a range of other industrial uses such as lubrication, chain
and hydraulic oils and greases," explains Dave Wilkins, director of communications
with the Canola Council of Canada. These products offer an environmentally friendly
replacement for petrochemical based lubricants and greases, and are in demand
by the forestry industry and industries operating near water sources and other
sensitive areas. There are commercial biolubricant products produced in Canada
and currently available on the market.

Some canola varieties have been developed specifically for the industrial uses.
For example, HEAR is a high erucic acid rapeseed used in the lubricant market.
"HEAR has better lubricating properties for some uses than regular canola,"
says Hickling. "There are some niche markets available for HEAR as a lubricant,
and there are other applications at the research and development stage."

Canola oil is also proving to be a useful bioplastic that can be used for everything
from medical tubing to car and machinery parts. "Researchers have been
able to convert canola oil in the laboratory to bioplastics as a substitute
for petrochemicals," says Hickling. "If this process makes sense in
the long-term, then one of the strategies we may be able to look at is to alter
the fatty acid of the canola through plant breeding and grow it as opposed to
making the expensive conversion in a lab. However, that is a long way down the
road yet." This research is being led by Dr. Suresh Narine at the University
of Alberta.

Other non-edible uses for canola oil are as a more environmentally friendly
base for inks in the printing industry and the tanning industry. "It's
also used as a slip agent in the manufacture of plastic grocery bags and sheet
steel," says Wilkins. "Because of its properties, it's also used in
fungicides and other pesticides and as a dust suppressant."

Canola oil is suitable for use in cosmetics, sun tan oil and oiled fabrics.
Button adds that the high stability oils may have industrial uses as well because
of their stability. "For example, it may be useful in products such as
hand lotion because of the high stability and extended shelf life."

The list of potential alternatives for canola oil for both non-edible and edible
uses continues to grow. Innovative research and development projects are focussing
on both new products and plant breeding efforts looking to improve traits for
various uses. However, whether or not a new use will make it to commercialization
will depend on economics and markets. "Canola oil does offer a lot of advantages
as an alternative for many uses, including being a more environmentally friendly
option to petrochemical based products," says Wilkins.

The Canola Council has a major program underway to help generate a consistent
supply of profitable canola every year. The 7 by 7 Program targets the consistent
production of seven million tonnes of canola every year by 2007. Part of that
strategy calls for expansion of alternate canola oil uses. "Our industry
continues to thrive and grow. We fully expect to see more alternate uses for
canola in the coming years, which will help expand market opportunities and
demand, and stimulate the production to meet that demand," says Wilkins.
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