A US-Chinese research team has discovered an unusual seed oil component in an ornamental flower that could lead to the development of more effective lubricants based on renewable plant oils.

During a study by the Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, China, scientist found that Orychophragmus violaceus – or the February orchid – contained seed oils that were highly unusual, said Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) in a 27 August statement.

The Chinese researchers contacted IUPUI bio-organic chemist Robert Minto, who discovered that nearly half of the seed oil was made up of fatty acids that had never before been identified.

Normally, during fatty acid formation, each molecule link required a four-reaction cycle to add further carbon atoms into the fatty acid.

However, in the O.violaceus fatty acids, one of the reaction cycles was only partially completed, leading to the unique fatty acid structure.

“This is the first time it’s ever been observed in any fatty acid biosynthesis that a partial cycle happens and then more cycles occur afterwards,” said Minto.

“There are many natural products, such as certain common antibiotics, that are made using a chemically similar process that leaves out steps in nearly every cycle. Alternately, there are fatty acid biosynthesis pathways where all the steps are completed. There has been nothing in between, but the biosynthesis of this seed oil compound is finally an example of that in-between,” he added.

According to IUPUI, the discovery could help in determining what in the chemical structure of O. violaceous seed oil makes it a superior lubricant.

Compared to castor oil, which was a common bio-based lubricant in engine oils, O. violaceus oil had better friction and wear reduction and could withstand higher temperatures.

“Commercially, it may prove to be a really good bio-renewable component in lubricants,” Minto said.