TRI-CITIES, Wash. (AP) — An oilseed that can grow in arid portions of Eastern Washington could one day supply fuel for commercial and military aircraft, power Navy ships and give livestock an important heart-healthy nutrient.
Camelina, a member of the mustard family, produces an oil that shows so much promise as an aviation biofuel that 14 major airlines have an agreement with a Seattle-based company to buy up to 750 million gallons of the fuel.
Airline and aircraft manufacturers that are part of the Airline Transportation Action Group have committed by 2015 to making biofuels 1 percent — about 500 million to 600 million gallons — of their annual fuel consumption, a Boeing executive said in February at a clean energy conference in Kennewick.
The Air Force and Navy also have contracts with a biofuels company to supply it with camelina-based fuel for aircraft and ships.
Last month, an Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt successfully flew on a 50-50 blend of camelina-based fuel and regular jet fuel, and similar tests are planned with a Navy F-18 and other aircraft.
Moreover, studies conducted by researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Washington State University have shown camelina can be grown in arid, nonirrigated and marginal soils found in some parts of Eastern Washington.
Researchers also have found it tolerates cold, needs a minimal amount of water, grows to maturity rapidly, doesn't require much fertilizer and works well as a rotational crop with wheat.
And it's rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial to heart health. Meal from crushed camelina seed has been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for use as feed for feedlot beef cattle and broiler chickens. The North American Camelina Trade Association, which includes camelina seed companies, processors and researchers, said last year it was working to obtain FDA certification for camelina meal use in feed for laying hens, swine and dairy cows.
"We're in the pioneering stages of this technology," said Hal Collins, a research soil microbiologist with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service unit in Prosser who's been part of a team studying camelina and other renewable fuel feedstocks.
Camelina has shown the most immediate promise for use as an aviation biofuel because of its high oil content — up to 38 percent — and its ability to grow in a variety of climate conditions, said Scott Johnson, president of Sustainable Oils, a camelina company.
It also can reduce carbon emissions in aviation fuel. An analysis by researchers from Michigan Tech University and others has shown camelina reduces carbon emissions by about 80 percent compared with petroleum fuel, according to Seattle-based AltAir Fuels.
And it's particularly suited for use in planes "because there's no such thing as a battery-powered aircraft. They are stuck using fuel," Johnson said.
America's military is keenly interested in biofuels because of security, economic and environmental concerns.
The Defense Department accounts for 80 percent of the federal government's energy consumption, with 75 percent of that in fuel, according to a newly released report by the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate.
The Navy's goal is to use 50 percent alternative fuels in its aircraft and ships by 2020, according to the report. Similarly, the Air Force wants 50 percent of its aviation fuels to come from biofuel blends by 2016, the Pew report said.
"Our military leaders recognize the security imperative of increasing the use of alternative fuels, decreasing energy use and reducing our reliance on imported oil," President Obama said last month.
Further, biofuels market researchers with an industry consulting group, Biomass Advisors, have projected that 1 billion gallons of camelina biofuel will be produced by 2025, creating up to 25,000 new jobs and producing $3.5 billion in new income for American and Canadian farmers.
But the amount of camelina now in the ground nationwide and in Washington isn't known.
It is tracked in Montana, the leading camelina-growing state in the nation, where 19,500 acres were harvested in 2009, according to the state's Agriculture Department.
Camelina companies also tend to keep the acreage and farmers they have under contract confidential for competitive reasons, Allen Reilly, farm representative for Great Plains Oil and Exploration, a renewable fuels company that makes and markets biofuel produced from camelina, said in an e-mail to the Herald.
But he said the number of acres planted in camelina in the Northwest and the number of participating farmers is increasing.
Scientists from the USDA's Agricultural Research Service are conducting long-range studies on camelina. And researchers from WSU and the USDA are in the third year of a research project that includes studies of camelina grown in four Northwest regions with differing amounts of annual rainfall, including the WSU Dryland Research Station in Lind, said Bill Schillinger, a WSU researcher and professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.
Yields of camelina seed have been higher per acre in areas with more rainfall. But it demonstrates promise in dry regions such as Lind, where the average annual amount of precipitation is 9 inches, Schillinger said.
In 2008, when precipitation was 6.37 inches, the average yield was 100 pounds per acre, he said. Last year, with about 8 inches, it rose to 500 to 600 pounds per acre.
"If we get 9.5 inches, we'd push 1,000 pounds," Schillinger said.
Researchers are looking at 18 varieties of camelina at the four sites, and different planting methods. So far, results have shown camelina in a dry zone like Lind would work best in a rotational system of winter wheat, camelina and fallow, Schillinger said.
"It could be a breakthrough crop in a dry zone," he said. "If camelina takes off, I think farmers are going to be looking at it with interest."
Not every farmer is growing camelina currently for biofuels, though. Organic grower Brad Bailie of Lenwood Farms near Connell sells the camelina he raises to a buyer who processes it into a salad oil.
"It's a tasty seed, and when I'm harvesting it I take a handful and eat them," Bailie said. "It's got a nice flavor."
Its use as a biofuel, though, currently has wider acceptance. The research and development of alternative, clean fuels is vital for America's energy independence, said Ted Durfey of Natural Selection Farms in Sunnyside. He's pressed canola oil to be used for biofuel at a crushing facility on his farm.
"Camelina has very strong potential viability as a biofuel, all the oilseeds do, and we need to look at them," Durfey said. "They may not be the greatest technology for reducing our dependency on imported oil and our emissions, but it's a start. At least we're trying this with open eyes and taking a holistic approach to reach for better solutions."