Industrial oils from plants

Ont. specialty crops
June 26, 2017
By Ont. specialty crops

As OMAFRA’s industrial crop specialist based at the Simcoe Research Station, Jim Todd works with non-food crops that have a variety of industrial uses – including energy production, or as a source of specialty oils, chemicals or medicinal compounds. 

Although predominantly used as an energy source, petroleum also serves as an industrial feedstock for the manufacture of many products used in daily life. For various reasons, countries around the world are searching for renewable replacements for petroleum. One promising alternative comes from the seed oils of plants. There are hundreds of different types of plant seed oils, many of which contain fatty acids that are structurally similar to those obtained from petroleum and so could be used in the manufacture of sustainable, environmentally friendly designer oils with specific end uses.

Researchers from OMAFRA and the University of Guelph are currently investigating the potential of growing two unique plants, Euphorbia lagascae from the Mediterranean and Centrapalus pauciflorus from Africa, as sources of vernolic acid, a naturally occurring epoxidized fatty acid that can directly substitute for the synthetic vernolic acid made from petroleum, soy or linseed oil. 

Epoxidized fatty acids are useful as raw materials for a wide variety of industrial processes including the synthesis of chemicals and lubricants.  Vernolic acid is most commonly used as a plasticizer in the manufacture of plastic polymers such as polyvinyl chloride or PVC. 

The main goal of the three-year study is to test the suitability of Euphorbia and Centrapalus for commercial cultivation under Ontario’s climatic conditions. Trials to identify suitable varieties and provide information on the agronomic requirements for successful cultivation are ongoing.

Other factors being evaluated include seeding practices, fertility and water requirements, harvesting methods, and weed/pest control. Oil has been extracted and analyzed to determine the range of total oil yield and vernolic acid content. Overall, both plants have performed well, but researchers have identified a few key areas that need further research. 

Field germination rates remain low, indicating a need for breeding to improve this trait and efficient harvest of Centrapalus will require the development of specialized harvest and seed cleaning equipment. 

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