Australian scientists may have achieved a decades-long quest to find a plant-based alternative to petroleum-based engine oils, one that can be recycled, reused and breaks down in the environment.
- Researchers have hailed Australian safflower oil as a potential replacement for petroleum
- Scientists are developing new varieties of safflower to be used specifically as a biofuel
- Interest from the US could mean export opportunities for Australian producers
The answer, they say, lies in a field of brown prickly thistles called safflowers.
The first commercial field trials have now been harvested at a range of sites, from northern New South Wales to southern Victoria.
Initial studies show safflower oil to be a superior lubricant that has lower emissions than conventional petroleum-based products, and reduces friction and wear on engine components.
Agronomist David Hudson, a 40-year veteran of Australia’s cropping industry, has been overseeing the safflower field trials and believes the oil offers unique benefits when it comes to sustainability.
“We can take it back, add another additive into it and we can actually recycle it back into our motor mowers, chainsaws and those types of oils, which can then be broken down in the environment,” he said.
Victorian grain grower David Jochinke, who participated in the trials, said the prospect of pioneering a biofuel was exciting.
“To have a product that needs very little refining, is biodegradable, is a bio-energy, is a bio-fuel, is something that displaces petroleum, something that’s been traditionally used in high-temperature, high-pressure applications, it’s very exciting,” he said.
“As a farmer, it’s a great thing to use that technology and be very proud to have been a part of the bigger picture.”
The science behind the golden oil
The biofuel is produced from specially-bred safflower with high levels of oleic acid, the culmination of 18 years of work by CSIRO plant scientists.
Oelic acid is a lubricating compound with a range of uses, from heart pacemakers to cosmetics.
Conventional safflower, one of humanity’s oldest crops, contains low levels of the acid, but Australian scientists have re-engineered it using gene silencing.
The result is a variety which yields up to 93 per cent oil, the highest level of purity in any currently available plant oils.
The CSIRO-developed variety is being constantly improved to suit a range of growing conditions, although safflower is a naturally hardy crop.
It has a giant tap root, so its ability to find deep moisture gives it enormous drought tolerance, and an advantage over crops like canola, wheat and lentils.
It also thrives in salty and sodic soils, a problem across much of Australia’s temperate cropping zone.
Scientists at Melbourne’s La Trobe University are screening and assessing countless varieties of the crop.
“[They] all have a variety of traits, including different types of oil content, days to flowering and other traits, like disease resistance, that are going to be desirable,” said Ulrik John, a plant molecular biologist working on safflowers.
“We’re going to try and use the diversity within that 400 plants to set up a new germplasm collection to generate the varieties of tomorrow.”
Dr John is also attempting to navigate safflower’s agronomic quirks.
“Without exception, no matter what time you plant the variety during the year, it will always flower on the 21st of December,” he said.
“We’re trying to trick the plant into believing that it can flower three times a year by increasing the day length so that the plant gets deceived.”
Hailed as a ‘gamechanger’ in the US
Researchers at Montana State University’s Advanced Fuel Centre in the United States have been comparing safflower oil’s performance under heat and pressure with conventional oil in a large diesel engine.
Senior researcher Randy Maglinao said the results were more than promising.
“It’s a breakthrough, a gamechanger for bio-based lubricants,” Dr Maglinao said.
Watching these results closely is Michael Kleinig, the CEO of Go Resources, the Australian company with the commercial rights to the hybrid safflower variety.
He is excited about the commercial possibilities for export.
“We’re not turning the Queen Mary around from petroleum-based oils, but it can go into every aspect of where petroleum oils are used, so it’s a massive market,” he said.
The US has mandated all government departments, including the military, must move to using plant-based lubricants by 2025, and Go Resources is aiming to secure some supply contracts.
“This will be great export money for Australia,” Mr Kleinig said.
“Royalties go back to CSIRO to invest in further fantastic plant research.”
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm or on iview.