Mustard Seeds as Bio Fuel for Planes

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At the current rate of usage, it is estimated that global oil reserves are sufficient to last until 2067. In the US, a staggering 70% of oil consumption is as a result of the transportation industry. It is evident therefore, that to continue to cater for the interconnected world to which we have become accustomed, alternative fuels must be developed. Further pressure is added by the increasing push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with EU legalization for example requiring a 10% decrease in greenhouse gas intensity of fuels by 2020.

Biofuels present a promising solution to this worldwide challenge. Of particular interest is the biofuel source Brassica Carinata, most commonly known as Ethiopian Mustard. These oilseeds are a non-food crop; an advantage over many other forms of biomass which have triggered concerns regarding growing competition between food and energy crops. It’s resilience to drought, heat and pests further support Carinata as a key contestant in the replacement of conventional fuels.

The oil obtained from the harvested crops is converted to biofuel via the chemical process of transesterification. This procedure is possible using existing farming equipment and oil processing facilities. It also important to note that the oil is compatible with existing jet engines, further facilitating the ease with which this fuel can be integrated into the industry. The resulting oil contains C22 monounsaturated acids in contrast to traditional aviation fuel with C9 to C13 molecules. The increased length of the carbon chains has the effect of reduced emissions such as naphtha. Perhaps the most crucial factor in terms of emissions, is the production of carbon dioxide. Although the burning of Carinata biofuel is by no means a carbon dioxide free process, the simple fact that the mustard crops absorb  during their harvesting signifies that the process as a whole is has a significantly lower carbon footprint.

Qantas LA to Melbourne Flight Powered by Carinata Biofuel

In the past 10 years, significant milestones have been reached by the Carinata sourced fuel. 2012 saw combined efforts by the NRC Canada and applied research associates achieve the first civil aviation flight powered by 100% biofuel. 2013 then saw PGF Biofuels awarded Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (“RSB”) certification for their development of the Carinata feedstock; signifying the fuel meets international sustainability standards.

However, it was not until January this year that the mustard seeds truly made their debut in worldwide headlines. The Qantas Boeing 787 Dreamliner completed its 15 hour journey from LA to Melbourne powered by a biofuel blend containing 10% Carinata oil. As a result the carbon emissions of this inter-continental flight were reduced by 7%. This world-first in commercial, international flights is a significant step towards the target set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to offset 80% of emissions between 2020 and 2035.

The flight took off with 24000 kg of the fuel blend developed by the Canadian agricultural-technology company Agrisoma Biosciences. This partnership with Agrisoma is part of a greater scheme to establish a renewable jet-fuel industry in Australia by using the Company’s well proven expertise to work alongside local Australian farmers. The country’s first ever commercial biofuel crops will be harvested in 2020, signifying the nation’s commitment to sustainable jet fuels.

Opposition to Carinata Based Fuels

Despite the undeniably encouraging benefits of Carinata, it is certainly not a perfect solution and faces well founded opposition. The Aforementioned Qantas flight required 150 acres of mustard plantations to produce the required volume of oil. This translates to a total area approximately the size of the Maldives to power the annual number of Qantas flights for this route. This has led to controversy regarding the practicality of balancing the land use with food crops.

However, unlike other sources of biofuel to which this is certainly a plausible argument, Carinata is particular suited to crop rotation with other food crops such as wheat. Crop rotation is essential to maintaining a strong yield, and therefore the periodic introduction of a mustard seed harvest would not adversely impact the production of such food crops. Furthermore, the uses of the Carinata are not limited to fuel. Once the seeds have been pressed to extract the oil, the crushed produce provides a high protein meal for cattle, providing additional reimbursement for the conversion of the crops to biofuel.

With the ever increasing pressure of diminishing fuel reserves and the battle to curb our greenhouse emissions, the race to develop alternative, renewable fuels is a one of the most prominent challenges faced by the scientific community. Although, there is still certainly development to be done concerning the introduction of Carinata into the fuel industry, it is evident that these mustard seeds present a promising step forwards towards cleaner transportation.


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