A field of safflower,
Agricultural business is fluctuating and unpredictable. Weather patterns,
consumer demand, and geography can lead to market gluts, often in the
wheat and corn sectors. One solution to this economic problem is to
find new and profitable uses for alternative crops. This strategy could
result in farm diversification and less overproduction of crops like
corn and soybeans.
ARS chemists Terry A. Isbell
and Steven C. Cermak have found a potentially profitable new use for
high-oleic oilseeds crops. They've made environmentally friendly, effective
lubricants containing estolides, which are fatty acids from oilseeds
such as high-oleic sunflower and high-oleic safflower.
Isbell and Cermak, who are at the National Center for Agricultural
Utilization Research (NCAUR) in Peoria, Illinois, recently received
two U.S. patents on the technology.
The new vegetable-based, biodegradable oils can be used as hydraulic
fluid in heavy equipment or as crankcase fluid. Industrial-sized production
of the starting material was done at a pilot plant at NCAUR.
These lubricants compare favorably to those produced from soybean and
canola. "Tests show that the estolide-based lubricants have excellent
pour points in cold temperatures, better oxidative stability than most
petroleum lubricants currently on the market, and good lubricity. These
properties all exceed those of soybean- and canola-based products,"
says Isbell. "The exception is the price of the starting material.
Soybean oil costs about 13 cents per pound, and oleic acid is 75 cents
per pound. But the estolides require far fewer additives than traditional
vegetable oil lubricants, which makes their final market cost identical."
Their superior properties make estolides good candidates for many lubricant
applications, particularly where enhanced performance and biodegradability
are required, says Isbell.
This research was done under a cooperative research and development
agreement (CRADA) with Lambent Technologies of Chicago. The company
was acquired in 1998 by Petroferm of Fernandina Beach, Florida.
Meanwhile, ARS scientists on the West Coast are exploring ways to boost
domestic production of castor plants, which yield versatile, top-quality,
high-priced oil. Chemist Thomas A. McKeon and plant physiologist Grace
Q. Chen are doing the work at the ARS Western Regional Research Center
in Albany, California.
Castor oil is used for making premium lubricants for heavy equipment
and for jet engines. It is also used in paints, coatings, plastics,
antifungal compounds, shampoo, and cosmetics.
McKeon and Chen are using techniques of modern biotechnology to remove
castor's ability to manufacture its potent toxin, ricin, and to keep
the plants from synthesizing allergens that can cause hives, asthma,
or anaphylactic shock. The team was the first in the world to genetically
engineer castor plants. They are seeking a patent for their work.
The two are now experimenting with another approach to shuttling strategic
genes into castor. And they're investigating whether castor can yield
new chemicals that could replace petroleum-derived compounds. The Dow
Chemical Company, headquartered in Midland, Michigan, is funding part
of the work under terms of a CRADA with ARS. Castor Oil, Inc., of Plainview,
Texas, is also a partner in this research.
Castor thrives in sunny climates, so it could be produced, for instance,
in the southern United States.By Sharon
Durham, and Marcia
Wood, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Quality and Utilization of Agricultural
Products, an ARS National Program (#306) described on the World Wide
Web at http://www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
Terry A. Isbell and
Steven C. Cermak are with
the National Center for Agricultural
Utilization Research, 1815 N. University St., Peoria, IL 61604;
phone (309) 681-6235, fax (309) 681-6524.
Thomas A. McKeon and Grace
Q. Chen are in the USDA-ARS Crop Improvement and Utilization Research
Unit, Western Regional Research Center,
800 Buchanan St., Albany, CA 94710; phone (510) 559-5754 [McKeon], (510)
559-5627 [Chen], fax (510) 559-5777.