Talking Point

Canola: An Excellent Feedstock for Biodiesel
By Barry Coleman | January 01, 2006
Canola has come on strong as an important oilseed crop in the northern region of the United States in the last decade. North Dakota leads the nation in canola production, growing over 1990s percent of the crop. Canola advanced quickly in the late 1990s as disease problems in cereal grains proliferated, creating the need for a rotational crop to break the cycle. Canola fit that need nicely, and as a result, production of the crop has increased from approximately 100,000 acres in 1996 to over 1 million acres today.

Increased production of canola is being driven by growing consumer demand for the healthy oil. Canola oil has the least amount of saturated fat of any vegetable oil-less than 7 percent-and has taken a place alongside olive oil on supermarket shelves. The same attributes that make canola oil such a healthy food also make it an ideal feedstock for biodiesel. It's a feedstock that results in a biodiesel that has excellent cold-flow properties. This is the main advantage of canola for biodiesel production. Another major advantage of canola is that it produces a very high amount of oil per acre. In fact, there have been projections made by people in the oilseed sector that there will be a great demand for a "true" oilseed for biodiesel production. A definition of a true oilseed is one which has oil as the main value component of the crop. Canola, which contains 42 percent oil, may be the oilseed people are looking for.

Two companies have announced plans to build biodiesel plants in North Dakota that will utilize canola. These are the first full-scale biodiesel plants in the nation to use the crop as a principal feedstock. Presently, canola grown in North Dakota is primarily crushed at two large processing plants-Archer Daniels Midland Co. in Velva (in the central part of the state) and Bunge in Altona, Manitoba (north of the border, above the northeast corner of the state). These two plants crush over 90 percent of the region's crop, and their capacity allows for further growth of the U.S. canola industry.

Research on new canola varieties that may be ideally suited to biodiesel production is underway at research centers in North Dakota, Idaho and Montana. In North Dakota, over
40 different lines of canola are being tested, which may potentially deliver higher yields and higher oil content. Through technology initiatives, research in specific fatty acid profiles is also projected to start in 2006 to foster the growth of biodiesel production in the region.

The northern region of the United States has ample room in the crop rotations to accommodate increased acreage of canola needed to supply the growing biodiesel sector. In North Dakota alone, canola acreage could increase to approximately 3.5 million to 4 million acres based on a four-year rotation. Shorter rotations could obviously allow for even more canola acreage.

Europe leads the world in biodiesel production with the majority of its production utilizing canola. In fact, the demand for canola oil in the European Union is so great that canola oil is being imported from Canada, Australia and China. This is quite remarkable given the fact that the EU produces over 17 million tons of canola annually and has traditionally been a net exporter of the crop.

Biodiesel offers great promise not only to the canola industry, but to the entire global vegetable oil complex in reducing our dependence on petroleum supplies while improving the profitability of farmers.

Barry Coleman is executive director of the Bismarck, N.D.-based Northern Canola Growers Association, which works to promote and encourage the establishment and maintenance of conditions favorable to the production, marketing, processing, research and use of canola. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 223-4124.
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