Montana State University

It takes a "village" of students and researchers to create a camelina market

March 20, 2008 -- By Carol Flaherty

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You've heard camelina oil has a potential in biofuels. Now Montana State University researchers are working to bring you camelina stove pellets, camelina in bread and peanut butter, camelina for livestock feed and camelina mulch, in addition to camelina growing recommendations.

It's all part of a push to provide a well-rounded research base for local economic development, said Alice Pilgeram, director of the MSU Biobased Institute, which supports bioenergy and biobased research projects being done by faculty, staff and students of MSU, MSU Extension and the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station.

The goal is to find uses for the by-products of camelina oil processing, as well as for the better-known omega-3-rich camelina oil.

"The emphasis at MSU is development of value-added applications for camelina meal," Pilgeram said. "Expansion of the Montana camelina crop has been limited by the current high prices of wheat and barley. However, early research has indicated that camelina is a valuable wheat rotation crop even in place of fallow."

The work is taking place at many sites around Montana as well as in Bozeman. At Havre's Northern Ag Research Center, Darin Boss is researching camelina meal as a beef cattle feed while Peggy Lamb and Gregg Carlson look at camelina in comparison to other oilseed crops. At the Central Ag Research Center at Moccasin, Chengci Chen is investigating crop rotations and Dave Wichman the effect of planting date on camelina yields. At the Western Triangle Research Center at Conrad, Grant Jackson is working on the effects of fertilization on camelina yields, and the Southern Ag Research Center in Huntley Steve King is evaluating herbicides for control of weeds in camelina.

At MSU in Bozeman, David Sands has completed a preliminary evaluation of camelina for use in poultry and dairy feeds and is working with nutritionist Mary Stein to evaluate camelina for use in peanut butters and breads; nutritionist Christina Campbell is studying the effects of camelina oil on inflammation in middle-aged women; plant scientist Chaofu Lu is investigating the metabolism of oilseeds; Pilgeram is working with MSU land resources student Carol Froseth to see how camelina waste would do as a mulch, and with plant sciences master's student Brekke Peterson on camelina for odor eradication and remediation of soils and water contaminated with aromatic compounds such as creosote and dichlorophenol. MSU Extension Professor Mike Vogel is working with MSU Mechanical Engineering Professor Vic Cundy and his students to develop the best-burn mix for camelina heating stove pellets.

For various regulatory and economic reasons, Pilgeram says she thinks the most likely first product to come to market from these efforts may be the camelina-based pellets for home heating stoves.

Camelina heating pellet development has had an unusual development path from conception to pasta maker to commercial pelletizer.

To take a step back, producing camelina oil for biofuels and livestock feeds leaves a by-product called camelina meal. Camelina meal is very similar to corn meal, although when camelina meal gets wet it produces a jello-like substance. In Europe and Montana, the meal has been evaluated for livestock and pet feed. Commercial livestock feeding requires FDA approval, which has yet to happen. In the interim, MSU is evaluating the meal for other applications such as home heating.

Vogel, Extension's housing and environmental quality specialist, says that when he got the idea of converting camelina meal into heating stove pellets, one hurdle was having no commercial grade pellet maker available. He and Cundy approached the problem with a "never-say-die" mentality and started looking for alternative ways to extrude pellets.

"To begin, all we really needed was an approximation of standard pellets," Vogel said.

When the pair heard of a pasta maker sitting idle, they investigated whether it could be adapted to create heating pellets that would come somewhat close to heating pellet specifications.

Sure enough, instead of pasta they could get pellets.

"Our pellets out of the pasta maker weren't the best, but they were a start," Cundy said.

Cundy had four students who worked on camelina pelletizing for their senior project during the 2006-2007 school year. They developed preliminary recipes for camelina meal pellets combined with other products such as ash, wood chips and straw. Current undergraduate students Alex Yudell and Stephen Switters are continuing the research.

Monte Bare, an MSU graduate in mechanical engineering, donated a heating stove for the research. It and the pasta-pellet mill were set up in 2007.

"Camelina heating value is at or above that of a premium wood pellet," Cundy said. Initial tests by an outside lab for MSU showed that camelina meal averages a heating content of about 10,000 British thermal units per pound. When MSU students had an outside lab test their camelina pellets, the heating value was about 8,600 BTUs per pound compared to about 8,300 BTUs per pound for premium wood pellets.

The student's pellet recipe also produced more ash and sulfur than wood, so the MSU work is now focusing on a pellet recipe that increases the heating values while decreasing ash and sulfur products of combustion.

This year, thanks to a grant from the USDA NRCS, the team will use a commercial-grade pellet maker.

"We need to manufacture the pellets consistent with the standards of the industry," Vogel said. "Once we are doing that, we can say we're comparing apples to apples."

Those "apples" will be given to the middle school in Townsend before long. The Townsend middle school received a grant to adapt its heater to use various fuels. As soon as the pellet team thinks it has the right recipe, they'll be taking enough pellets to Townsend for a full test in a commercial heating system.

The bulk of the work to develop camelina has been funded by the Biobased Institute at MSU. Additional research support has been provided by USDA NRCS, USDA "Fuels for Schools" Project, Montana Department of Commerce Research and Commercialization Board, USDA SBIR, and the US Egg and Poultry Association.

Contact: Alice Pilgeram (406) 994-1986 or pilgeram@montana.edu, Mike Vogel (406) 994-3451 or mvogel@montana.edu, Vic Cundy (406) 994-7204 or vcundy@me.montana.edu