Researchers are hailing an Australian high oleic safflower oil as a potential replacement for petroleum in industrial products ranging from fuels and lubricants to speciality chemicals and plastics, ABC News reported on 6 June.
Scientists at Australia’s national science research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), joined forces with the Australian Grains Research and Development Corporation to establish the Crop Biofactories Initiative (CBI) to engineer oilseeds with fatty acid compositions for specific industrial applications.
They succeeded in producing a safflower seed oil – called Super-High Oleic (SHO) safflower - containing over 92% oleic acid, CSIRO said on its website.
“SHO safflower has the highest level of purity of an individual fatty acid present in any currently available plant oil.”
Initial studies showed the safflower oil to be a superior lubricant with lower emissions than conventional petroleum-based products, ABC News said. It also led to reduced friction and wear on engine parts.
Agronomist David Hudson, who oversaw the five years of field trials, believed the oil offered a range of sustainability benefits.
"We can take it back, add another additive into it and we can actually recycle it back into our motor mowers, chainsaws and those types of oils, which can then be broken down in the environment," he said."So you virtually have a net zero carbon cycle."
The SHO safflower was the culmination of 18 years of research by CSIRO plant scientists.
Conventional safflower, one of humanity’s oldest crops which has been used to dye fabric for thousands of years, contains low levels of oleic acid, but Australian scientists re-engineered the oilseed using gene silencing. This switched off genes that control processes within the safflower seed that limit the level of oleic acid, causing a build-up of the highly desirable oil.
Safflower is a naturally hardy plant but the CSIRO variety is being developed to suit a range of growing conditions.
With its giant tap root, the plant’s ability to find deep moisture gives it improved drought tolerance, giving it an advantage over crops like canola, wheat and lentils. It also thrives in salty and sodic soils, a problem across much of Australia's temperate cropping zone.
The commercial rights to the hybrid safflower variety developed by CBI has been licensed to Australian clean technology company GO Resources. The company operates in the industrial lubricant and oleochemical sectors and is also active in the deregulation of GM technologies and the development of supply chains for GM products.
Go Resources CEO Michael Klenig said the crop had great export potential.
CSIRO said safflower was currently a relatively minor crop in Australia grown on about 10,000ha, due to a small domestic market for its oil, but it expected to see significant areas of SHO safflower grown in Australia by 2023.