Creating a Better Bean

A Biodiesel Magazine Q&A with Dr. Tom Clemente
By Tom Bryan | February 01, 2005
University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) researcher Tom Clemente is passionate about crop research and he's now focused on a project aimed at modifying soybean oil for enhanced performance in biodiesel blends. Using the tools of biotechnology, he said, it is possible to introduce novel traits in crop plants for both input and output benefits. One of the goals of UNL's soybean biotechnology team is to enhance the oxidative stability of soybean oil. High oxidative, stable oil will have benefits in both food and industrial applications. With respect to the latter, UNL's laboratory is evaluating soybean oil that is high in oleic acid and low in polyunsaturated and saturated fatty acids, or "HO" oil, for use in biodiesel. Clemente answered Biodiesel Magazine's questions in January.

BDM: What key institutions are involved? Where is this research
taking place?

Clemente: Testing of this novel soybean oil as a biodiesel is being conducted at UNL in collaboration with Iowa State's Biomass Energy Conversion Center (BECC). Agronomic performance measures of the HO oil soybean are being conducted under various environmental conditions; this aspect of the research is being coordinated at UNL. Oil extraction, biodiesel conversion and engine testing is being conducted at BECC.

BDM: Describe the crop engineering science that has made this all possible.

Clemente: This HO oil soybean was derived from the tools of biotechnology. This was carried out by deliberately targeting the "shut-off" of expression of two genes during seed development. The consequence of this alteration of seed metabolism is a shift in the fatty acid composition of the derived soybean oil.

BDM: How is the research being funded?

Clemente: The research has been funded by soybean producers through check-off dollars provided through the Nebraska Soybean Board and the United Soybean Board, in addition to the Nebraska Research Initiative and more recently the U.S. DOE.

BDM: What do you hope to accomplish with this particular research? Perhaps more importantly, why is this research relevant to the world we live in today?

Clemente: We hope to demonstrate the added industrial value of an HO oil soybean. The food applications are obvious. The benefits for biodiesel and perhaps other industrial applications may not be so obvious.

BDM: Designing specialty oils in soybeans for targeted biodiesel usage is facilitated by well-developed genetic engineering methodologies. You have stated that the ability to introduce foreign genes into soybeans was first demonstrated in the mid-1980s. There are obviously many pioneers in this realm of science. Who can be credited for previous research in this area? How has that affected your research?

Plant genetic engineering technologies were developed in both the private and public sector. A few key players who played significant roles in development of plant genetic engineering technologies include Mary Dell-Chilton, Jeff Schell, Eugene Nester and John Sanford. As per soybean genetic engineering, significant advancements were made by researchers at Monsanto, Agracetus, DuPont and public sector laboratories, including those at the University of Georgia (Wayne Parrott), Ohio State University (John Finer) and the University of Minnesota (Dave Somers) to name a few.

BDM: How did you enter into the research (specifically related to biodiesel)? In other words, what attracted you to this particular branch of soybean genetic engineering?

Clemente: You keep up on the literature. Desired targets can be gleaned from there.

BDM: In modifying soybean oil for enhanced performance in biodiesel blends, what exactly do American biodiesel producers stand to gain? In other words, tell us what you and other researchers hope to achieve by genetically engineering fuel-friendly soybeans?

Clemente: You have oil with high oxidative stability. Therefore, longer-self life in storage tanks. In addition, we have preliminary information that suggests there is a significant drop in NOx emissions when using a biodiesel derived from HO soybean oil.

BDM: Researchers believe oils composed of triglycerides harboring shorter chain fatty acids may circumvent the need for transesterfication, thereby reducing the cost of biodiesel production. Are we talking about doing away with transesterification altogether?

Clemente: I am not the one to address this issue. Clearly, others out there are more qualified. But the bottom line is an oil high in saturated fatty acid, may provide a route to circumvent transesterfication, but I would guess a fuel derived from this type of oil may have some cold flow problems, so perhaps it would only be useful under warmer climates.

BDM: You have stated that researchers may be close to delivering the combined benefits of enhanced oxidative stability and lubricity of high oleic acid and ricinoleic acid, respectively, to soybean oil. To this end, you say, designing a soybean oil with 10 percent to 20 percent ricinoleic acid coupled with 70 percent to 80 percent oleic acid is a reasonable target for an enhanced performance biodiesel fuel. Theoretically, how soon might it be until producers and consumers begin to experience the benefits of these new oils? What stage is the research at?

Clemente: As a fuel or lubricant, such an oil is years away from the marketplace for a multitude reasons. Regulatory and intellectual property issues slow the process down.

BDM: You mention in your report that the limitations of biodiesel are compounded by the inverse relationship between cold flow and oxidative stability. Alterations in the fatty acid profile that increase the saturated fatty acid content will augment oxidative stability but worsen cold flow. Is there any solution to the cold flow dilemma that this fatty acid alteration poses?

Clemente: Our laboratory focuses on the development of novel oils. We rely on others to direct us towards the targets. We merely provide the route on how to reach the target.

BDM: How do you respond to environmental activists who oppose the genetic modification of crops? For example, some groups are now calling for "organic biodiesel." How do your react-and perhaps respond-to those actions?

Clemente: "Organic biodiesel," interesting, perhaps it will be useful for an "organic Mack Truck."

What do you find particularly rewarding and particularly challenging about this research? Maybe it's the same thing.

Science itself is rewarding and challenging and most importantly fun, regardless of the discipline.

When your involvement in this research ends, will you and your colleagues continue to research new ways to improve the characteristics of genetically modified soybeans for biodiesel use? Any ideas of where the next area of research will be?

Clemente: We will continue to explore ways to enhance soybean germplasm to enable the American soybean producers to maintain their competitive edge.

Dr. Tom Clemente can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

Questions by Tom Bryan, editorial director of Biodiesel Magazine. Bryan can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (701) 746-8385.
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