The Rock Doc

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters ColumnistWashington — The Gulf oil spill has shown us just one of the downsides of petroleum. It makes the mind of even a geologist like me turn to several questions about the future:

Could Americans grow more of our own fuel – enough to run a number of our cars, trucks and airplanes? And, importantly, could we do so without displacing food crops like corn?

People from all sorts of political persuasions are interested in those issues. The good news is researchers – and farmers with a vision, too – are hard at work laboring on new uses of an ancient crop plant called Camelina.

Also known as “false flax,” it’s a wispy plant in the same group as mustard and Canola.

There are two impressive things about Camelina: Its seeds contain a lot of oil that’s liberated by crushing – and the more oil, the better from the fuel point of view. Better still, Camelina can be grown on pretty lousy soil – areas where no crops grow well or that are at times left fallow by farmers in dry regions of the country.

Score two big ones for Camelina.

Archeologists say Camelina has been grown by people for several thousand years. You can eat Camelina oil, which has a lot of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Camelina was grown through the 1930s in eastern Europe, where its oil was used in lamps, and the meal left over from crushing the seeds was fed to livestock.

In short, it has been a pretty durable friend of ours, as crops go. It was likely an original biofuel, you could say, and one that only recently fell fully out of use.

Today researchers are investigating bringing back Camelina because it has some highly valuable properties for something much more modern than lamp oil. With processing, Camelina oil can be used in jet engines. It’s a “drop in” fuel, meaning it functions like traditional jet fuel. Blended with petroleum jet fuel, in fact, it has already been “test driven” in jets.

Score a third big one for Camelina.

“This ancient crop has a great deal of new potential,” says Professor Ralph Cavalieri of Washington State University. “We think we are poised to make major contributions to biofuels with Camelina.”

But where can we grow this venerable crop in the United States without displacing food crops?

Here’s an example: In eastern Montana and central Oregon and Washington, where the climate is semi-arid, wheat is often grown on a rotating basis with fallow years. Camelina looks like a good crop for otherwise fallow times. It can hold soil in place instead of leaving it exposed to windstorms. And it can give farmers income during years when they would have none otherwise.

It’s true, of course, that when you burn Camelina-based jet fuel – or corn-based ethanol or soybean-based biodiesel – you liberate carbon dioxide, the well-known greenhouse gas. But that carbon is not ancient, like that of coal and petroleum. It’s part of the life cycle, if you will, of the recent history of the planet.

The worry about global warming rests on our liberation of ancient carbon, the material that upsets the balance of what’s in the atmosphere today.

There are many details to be worked out for Camelina, and much work to do to see if it all makes sense in economic terms on a large scale.

But it looks like the major international airport at Seattle-Tacoma will soon get part of its fuel from Camelina. That’s to be welcomed, especially if it helps global warming, soil conservation and the bottom line of farmers.

Still, it remains true that we cannot yet simply grow ourselves out of our dependence on petroleum. The total biofuel power in our country is a fraction of what we get from our main fluid fuels, petroleum and natural gas.

But every step we take toward energy independence without limiting our food production is clearly great news.

E. Kirsten Peters, PhD, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. Peters can be reached at CNHI News Service distributes her column.