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Helping wean chemicals industry off dependence on crude oil

31 October, 2008

CSIRO scientists have joined one of the world’s largest biotechnology consortia to help develop crops which produce oils to be used by the chemicals industry as sustainable alternatives to those derived from the world’s non-renewable stocks of crude oil.

The Industrial Crops producing added value Oils for Novel chemicals (ICON) project, is a four-year global collaboration involving leading scientists from 23 partner organisations in 11 countries.

The project aims to develop high-yield, sustainable oilseed crops for the chemicals industry and provide substantial environmental benefits, energy savings and economic returns.

ICON is modifying the non-food oilseed crops, Crambe abyssinica and Brassica carinata, so they produce wax esters, which are much more resistant to high temperatures and pressures than normal plant oils. This will substantially increase the industrial uses of the plants’ oils.
 
“We aim to contribute to ICON by discovering novel genes for wax synthesis, which could be produced in crops,” says senior CSIRO Plant Industry scientist, Dr Allan Green.

“CSIRO is also well placed to assist ICON improve Crambe’s seed yield to enable it to become a more competitive industrial crop.

“We’re already developing crops to provide renewable industrial raw materials to replace petrochemicals through the Crop Biofactories Initiative – a joint venture between CSIRO and the Grains Research and Development Corporation.” 

“We aim to contribute to ICON by discovering novel genes for wax synthesis, which could be produced in crops,” says senior CSIRO Plant Industry scientist, Dr Allan Green.

Earlier this year CSIRO announced it would use safflower as its first biofactory platform crop because it is hardy, easy to grow, widely adapted and easily isolated from food production systems.

“Essentially, safflower is ‘ready-to-go’ as an industrial crop platform within Australia,” Dr Green says.

“ICON complements our Crop Biofactories Initiative, as it will help develop the next generation of high-yield, non-food crop platforms for production of industrial products, and will serve as an ice-breaker to show how agriculture can contribute to a sustainable industrial economy in a post-petroleum future.”

While there are a range of alternatives to using fossil fuels for energy, only biological materials can replace petroleum-derived lubricants and industrial chemicals. Processing petroleum also uses a lot of energy that could be saved if crops produced oils designed for specific needs.

Farmers could also receive premium prices for these new crops, which would take up a minimum of valuable food production land, unlike the cultivation of energy crops.

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