Canola Biodiesel: Good for the Heart, Engine

By Angela Dansby | June 17, 2008
Canola oil, prized in food uses as the vegetable oil lowest in saturated fat, is not only good for the heart, but also good for the engine. It's the gold standard as a feedstock for biodiesel production due to its fatty acid profile and high oil content.

Canola yields more than 40 percent oil when crushed compared to only 18 percent for soybeans, the most common biodiesel feedstock. Since refined oils currently represent approximately 90 percent of total biodiesel feedstocks, a crop's oil content is an important factor in the value chain.

Quality is also important. Canola's unique composition-61 percent monounsaturated fat, 32 percent polyunsaturated fat and 7 percent saturated fat-allows for excellent cold-flow properties. Saturated fats not only clog arteries, but can clog fuel lines, too. That's why canola-based biodiesel is particularly well-suited for cooler climates in such regions as the northern plains and the Midwest.

According to Purdue University Extension, 100 percent canola biodiesel has better cold-flow properties than biodiesel made from 100 percent soy, lard or tallow. Others quality aspects of biodiesel are related to the proportion of polyunsaturated fats in the feedstock oils. Oils high in polyunsaturates have higher nitrogen oxide emissions when burned, according to the University of Idaho. Canola oil is relatively low in polyunsaturated fats, so it produces less of these emissions.

Agronomic Advantage, Burgeoning Supply
From an agronomic standpoint, canola offers the advantage of being both a spring and winter crop in the United States. Spring canola, which is grown primarily in North Dakota, is being sought as a new rotational crop in several states due to widespread interest in biodiesel production. Acreage of winter canola is taking off in Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia and Alabama.

The potential for winter canola in the Great Plains is tremendous given the wheat monoculture in the region. It is estimated that if every wheat farmer there added canola to crop rotations, U.S. canola acreage could increase from just more than 1 million acres to approximately 3 million.

Canola is a good rotational crop for wheat, helping clean up weeds and break disease cycles in wheat fields. In fact, canola has been cited as the best broadleaf crop for winter wheat due to its ability to create a mellow seed bed that maximizes wheat seedling establishment.

The ratio of domestic canola production to demand in the United States is approximately 1:3. As a result, a significant amount of canola is imported from Canada, which harvested nearly 15 million acres of the crop in 2007. Demand for canola oil in the United States continues to grow, primarily for food use due to consumer interest in healthier foods and trans fat labeling requirements and use restrictions. However, there is also significant interest around the country in using canola for biodiesel production.

The U.S. and Canada are striving to increase canola acres, oil content and yields to meet the increasing demands for both food and fuel. The U.S. Canola Association recently launched a Promote Canola Acres program to increase acreage to 2 million by 2010 and more than 4 million acres by 2015. The Canola Council of Canada's goal is to produce 17 million acres by 2015.

The North American canola industry is confident that canola supply will continue to be adequate for both food and fuel markets in the foreseeable future. Ultimately, the marketplace will determine how much canola is channeled into biodiesel production.

Canola's role in the biodiesel industry must be supported by demand for the meal coproduct left over after oil extraction. Canola meal is an excellent source of protein for livestock, and has the potential for use in human food as well as in composites for construction materials and automotive applications.

Angela Dansby is the director of communications for the U.S. Canola Association. Reach her at or (773) 697-7686.
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