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Canola's biodiesel advantage

While economic and legislative issues affecting biodiesel have taken center stage, canola growers wait in the wings. They expect to play a greater role in the biodiesel scene, as issues relating to the economy, land use, and fuel mandates are resolved.

In 2009, before the rebound in oil prices last year, and in 2011, canola biodiesel suffered from the same economic pressures on the general biodiesel market.

“The biodiesel industry is on track to produce 800 million gallons this year, more than double last year’s 315 million gallons,” says Barry Coleman, executive director of the Northern Canola Growers Association.

Most biodiesel comes from soybeans. Demand is driven by a federal mandate, the Renewable Fuel Standard. Canola, too, is benefitting. Plants in North Dakota and Washington are making fuel from the crop. “There’s a little bit of expansion being talked about,” Coleman says.

Canola has a natural advantage in its high oil content. It yields more than 40% oil when crushed, compared to only 18% for soybeans, the most common biodiesel feedstock.

“If you have a 2,000-pound-per-acre yield of canola at 43% oil content, you’ll get 860 pounds of oil, or about 100 gallons of canola biodiesel per acre,” says Gary Willoughby, research specialist at the North Dakota State University North Central Research Extension Center.

With its affinity for the cool climates that tend to challenge soybeans, canola presents the opportunity for broadening the geographical area potentially available for producing biodiesel.

“There are some soybean varieties that are starting to perform well farther north, but canola fits better with our coolerseason climate,” says canola grower Kevin Waslaski, Langdon, North Dakota. His farm is located in Cavalier County, just south of the Canadian border.

“Ninety percent of the canola grown in the United States is grown in North Dakota, and Cavalier County is the largest producer of canola in the state,” says Waslaski, who serves as president of the U.S. Canola Association.

Despite its high-oil advantage, canola’s role in the biodiesel economy has been limited by strong demand for the oil as a food source. “Food oil is the major market for canola,” says Waslaski. “Biodiesel sets the bottom for our market.”

Meeting the demands of both markets is the goal of researchers at North Dakota State University. “To meet the needs of the biodiesel industry, we’re trying to develop lines that will produce more pounds of oil per acre,” says Phillip McClean, North Dakota State University plant geneticist.

Colleague Mukhlesur Rahman is developing canola lines with 10% greater oil content. “If we can produce 100 more pounds of oil on an acre of land, we can increase oil production significantly,” he says. When calculated across North Dakota’s 890,000 acres presently growing canola, the increase stands to yield 76.5 million more pounds of oil.

As the biodiesel economy evolves, each type of feedstock is bound to carve out and claim the geographical area best matching its strengths. “For our part of the country, canola is the best feedstock,” says McClean.

One reason has to do with canola biodiesel’s low gelling point. “The gelling point for biodiesel made from canola oil is approximately 30°F. to 32°F.,” says Willoughby. “For soybean biodiesel, it’s approximately 36°. The farther north you get, the more sense it makes to use biodiesel made from canola oil.”

Feedstock differences relating to gelling point are of heightened concern for some particularly environmentally sensitive areas where vehicles are required to burn 100% biodegradable fuels.

Canola’s biodiesel benefits are catching up in the marketplace. “The Canadian government implemented a 2% renewable content requirement in diesel fuel and heating oil effective July 1,” Coleman says. “This is expected to create demand for one million tons of canola annually.

Currently, most of the canola-based biodiesel that is used to meet these inclusion standards is processed in the U.S.” This year, North Dakota growers intended to plant 1.4 million acres of canola, before excessive rain forced cutbacks.

“We are also emphasizing the rotational benefit growers get from canola,” he adds. “There are documented economic benefits to growing canola in rotation with barley, winter wheat, and spring wheat. Studies suggest increases in economic returns of $40 to $60 per acre for planting these crops in rotation with canola.”

Moisture savings is the main reason for the rotational benefit. Because canola can be harvested early, it uses less moisture than later-season crops such as corn and sunflowers. When harvesting methods permit tall-standing stubble in the canola, the stubble is a good snow trap in winter.

“Canola has the added benefit of breaking up disease cycles in wheat and barley,” says Waslaski. “It yields well, too. Here in Cavalier County, we probably have some of the best canola yields in the country.”

If forces in the biodiesel economy let canola play a more prominent future role, growers like Waslaski will be poised to respond.

“Canola is one of the best feedstocks for producing biodiesel,” he says.

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