Pass the Mustard: Why Carinata is Taking Root as Biofuel

Navigant Research forecasts that the “global biofuels production will reach 61 billion gallons by 2023, replacing nearly 6 percent of global transportation fuel production from fossil sources and generating $70 billion in new revenue over the next decade.” The demand for an appropriate crop that can provide biofuels, without competing for land use with food crops, is on. The emergence of non-food feedstocks to fuel the international biofuel demand is on the horizon.

The “Holy Grail” of non-food feedstocks has arrived with a proprietary non-food energy feedstock crop called carinata which yields oil that is being refined into fuel that meet the specifications of petroleum-based fuels and work in existing engines without blending.

This new kid on the biofuel block taking root is the carinata seed. Carinata is a leafy plant originating in Ethiopia, also referred to as Ethiopian mustard and Abyssinian mustard, and produces oil seeds being used as a biofuel which mimics the attributes of its petroleum-derived counterpart. To date, carinata has demonstrated agronomic success across sixty commercial sites and farms in the Canadian and U.S. prairies. Carinata is a non-food, energy feedstock crop which yields oil that can be refined into fuels that meet the specifications of petroleum-based fuels and work in ground and air transportation engines without engine modifications or blending.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) seeks to decrease net carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent, compared to 2005 levels, by 2050. The Renewable Fuel Standard, developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a federal program that requires that transportation fuel sold in America contains a minimum volume of renewable fuels. Originating with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and extended in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the standard mandates 36 billion gallons of biofuels usage by 2022, with a maximum of 15 billion gallons derived from food crops, and a minimum of 21 billion gallons from advanced biofuels. 

The use of bio-jet fuel from non-food sources can help meet those goals. The production of carinata substantially reduces carbon and other harmful emissions, and helps to reduce global petroleum dependence. Carinata has been successfully used to produce a drop-in jet fuel that is compatible with existing jet engines without any engine modifications.

Other raw ingredients of biofuel are varied and include corn, soybean, algae, sugarcane and waste products. What makes carinata worth watching and why are researchers and scientists developing this alternative biofuel?

Feedstock for biodiesel is in high demand. Soybean and canola oils have been traditionally used, however the costs of those food grade oils limits their use in biofuels. Non-food crops such as carinata have lower input costs for crop production and greater yields of oils, as such these crop seeds provide farmers with a strong cash crop alternative to other crops — especially when grown on our least expensive farmlands as part of a rotation strategy that can utilize fallow lands.

The New York Times reported that the growth of the biofuels industry has created a scarcity of land for food crops in regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America. 

Approximately 33 percent of the corn crop in the U.S. in 2013, representing $2.6 billion in crop seed sales is used as feedstock for ethanol. Ethanol can’t be used to make biodiesel as it is not an oil-based feedstock. Soybeans, which produce oil, are used as a feedstock for biodiesel. 24 percent of the soybean crop, representing $1.6 billion in soybean seed sales, is used for biodiesel feedstock. To ensure the future growth of biofuels, non-food crops need to become the primary source of feedstock. The amount of feedstock derived from food crops is already at the limit allowed by law so all growth will need to be from “advanced biofuel” sources. Biodiesel is the only certified “advanced biofuel” under this standard, hence represents the most direct opportunity to gain market share. 

The biodiesel fuels customer base includes commercial ground transportation, the military, who have legislated 50% biofuel content by 2017 and 100 percent by 2025, and the aviation industry, who are certifying 50 percent biofuel content by 2020. Biodiesel and biojet fuels can only be manufactured from oil “feedstock” and represent a combined opportunity that is similar to, if not larger than ethanol. This opportunity translates into a minimum of 6 billion gallons of feedstock for biodiesel applications and up to 30 billion gallons of feedstock for biojet fuel in the next decade. 

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), biofuel production could reach approximately 112 billion gallons by 2030. To meet these targets, the IEA believes feedstock production would need to increase to 150 million acres in 2030, up from 75 million acres in 2010.

After crushing the carinata oilseeds and extracting the oil, the residual is ground into a co-product meal for use in cattle markets. This is essential to the overall crop value proposition as it recaptures so much of the costs and assists in the economic viability of this burgeoning biofuel. When the meal’s full value is achieved, and at scale, the cost of producing biofuel with carinata is cost-competitive for energy customers.

Based upon the yields per acre and the make-up of the carbon chains within the oilseed, carinata has higher efficiency than the next best performing oilseed in existence today. In short, we learned that we can produce more fuel per acre on semi-arid lands than any other oilseed in existence today. Carinata was certified as a feedstock under the Roundtable for Sustainable Biomass. In 2012, carinata was used to power the world’s first civil aviation flight powered by 100 percent biofuel with the NRC Flight Research Laboratory world’s first 100 percent biofuel flight powered by carinata.

In 2013, a working group comprised of representatives from energy companies, U.S. national laboratories and a Canadian national laboratory, extensively tested ReadiDiesel refined from carinata against nine other renewable diesels and found that the carinata-based diesel looked more like petroleum-derived fuel than the others. In fact, the carinata-based diesel met the specification for petroleum diesel. This is significant because that fuel could be used 100% unblended as a petroleum substitute. The increasing demand for feedstock will increase the market for feedstock from non-food crop seeds to $1 billion over the next decade and carinata is uniquely positioned to be the feedstock to meet this new market.

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Don Konantz is President & CEO of Calyx Bio-Ventures,, an agricultural technology company focused on renewable fuels including biojet and biodiesel.

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