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Farmers And Scientists Search For Super Fuel Crop

Growing canola to make biodiesel isn't exactly setting Northwest farmers' hearts aflutter.

Government statistics show just a slight increase in canola plantings, despite layers of incentives to support homegrown fuel.  Plant breeders and university researchers in Oregon, Idaho, and Washington keep plugging away to find more options for area growers.

Correspondent Tom Banse reports on what we might call ALTERNATIVE alternative fuel crops.

Biodiesel and ethanol production in the Northwest has gone from virtually nothing five years ago to tens of millions of gallons of annual production today.  Soon it’ll rise to hundreds of millions of gallons judging from all the projects in development across the region.

Plant breeder Fernando Guillen calls camelina “very promising” as a biofuel crop.

You’re not the only one asking what crops will feed all of those refineries.  University of Idaho Professor Jack Brown says it would be a shame if we simply traded dependence on Middle Eastern crude oil for dependence on other foreign oil – in this case, vegetable oil.

Jack Brown: “If we’re really going to have a Northwest biofuels industry, we’re going to have to rely on all the potential inputs from feedstocks. We’re going to have to have a canola industry, a rapeseed industry, a mustard industry.  And we’re going to have to need a camelina industry.”

The transplanted Scotsman has worked for years to identify the best varieties of oilseeds to plant in the Northwest.

These days, Brown is particularly keen on mustard.  He says the same plant that yields the condiment for your hot dog can also fuel a hot rod.

Jack Brown: “The oil is an incidental byproduct.  When you have an incidental byproduct, you have cheap biodiesel.”

Then there’s that other strange crop Brown mentioned: camelina.  The Greeks and Romans grew camelina, but the European oilseed arrived over here only recently.  It’s one to watch. 

A Seattle-based biotech firm called Targeted Growth is co-sponsoring field trials in Oregon, eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana and elsewhere.

Plant breeder Fernando Guillen gets out of his pick-up at a test plot near Bozeman, Montana.

Fernando Guillen: “What you’re seeing in front of you is camelina, just camelina okay…”

To the untutored eye, it looks like a common weed went wild and turned brown here.  Lots of numbered stakes suggest otherwise. Guillen says the oilseed grows fast and cheap.  It requires little in the way of irrigation water or fertilizer.

Fernando Guillen: “Camelina can be grown in marginal areas where soybeans unfortunately cannot be grown. Or in areas where canola cannot be grown.”

Oregon State University also planted camelina in field trials this year.  Crop scientist Don Wysocki says it shows potential, but also faces hurdles.  For instance, no approved herbicide, no crop insurance, and no market for the meal leftover after crushing.

Don Wysocki: “It’s great to have a new crop, but you know it’s not a silver bullet by any means.”

Wysocki puts his money on canola to be the mainstay of a Northwest biofuels industry.  He spoke at a conference organized by the relatively new Northwest Biofuels Association.

At the same event, Russ Karow of Oregon State cautioned that even under the best of scenarios, oilseeds can fill only a small portion of the region’s gas tanks.

Russ Karow: “We will never produce enough acreage to meet all of our fuel demands. We simply do not have the acreage in this state nor in neighboring states to do that.  We’re different than the Midwest.”

If only we could refine fuel from trees.  Oh, yeah.  Researchers are on to that too.

Closest to fruition are trials by Washington State University and Portland-based tree farmers.  They’re making ethanol from wood chips of hybrid poplar.

Web extras:

NW Biofuels Association

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