Western Australia’s emerging safflower industry a game changer for biofuel companies

Key points:

  • Scientists have developed new varieties of GM safflower which can be used as a biofuel
  • Clean energy company GO Resources is producing safflower oil as a potential replacement for petroleum
  • A commercial crop will be harvested in WA’s Wheatbelt for the first time in 2022

The fledgling safflower industry in Western Australia could hold the key to growing the market for the world’s most sustainable, plant-based alternative to petroleum-based engine oils.

The prickly, thistly plant was used for many decades by Australian farmers as a break crop for cotton, with a small amount sold into the birdseed market each year.

However, as global economies work towards a carbon-neutral future by 2030, clean technology company GO Resources have ‘reinvented’ this unsuspecting crop to meet the growing demand for the multi-billion-dollar biofuel market.

“We’ve only just seen recently at the COP26 conference…the big push to really move away from fossil-based fuels,” said research and development manager David Hudson.

“This is what the whole plant bio-based industry is about; using plants as a renewable source for the development and production of oils, that can be used to replace the crops, such as palm oil, but also a fossil fuel oil.

“We’re getting demand now from overseas … and we’re now supplying a major company in India, so we’re very keen on developing the super high oleic safflower market in Western Australia.”

The science behind the golden oil

The biofuel product is produced from a specially bred safflower with high levels of oleic acid, which yields up to 93 per cent oil — the highest level of purity in any plant oils currently available on the market.

The Victorian-based company, Go Resources, bought the commercial rights for CSIRO’s genetically modified variety, with the hope their product could one day replace fossil fuels in lubricants, bioplastics, and pharmaceuticals.

Since 2015, the company has been funding research trials in Western Australia’s Ord Irrigation Scheme, which was identified early on for its suitability for seed production.

This fieldwork has been integral to the success of commercial harvests at a range of sites in NSW, Victoria and South Australia over the last two years.

But Mr Hudson, who also played an integral part in commercialising GM cotton and GM canola in Australia, said WA’s Wheatbelt appeared to be the perfect place to expand their commercial plantings in 2022.

The safflower plant has a giant tap root, so its ability to find deep moisture gives it drought tolerance and an advantage over crops like canola, wheat and lentils.

Research also suggests the crop thrives in salty and sodic soils, a problem across WA’s southern grain-growing regions.

Creating a WA supply chain

Mr Hudson said results from the 24 field trials between the Wheatbelt and Esperance this year had proved safflower was a good fit for WA grain growers.

“We know that safflower can grow quite successfully. We believe it’s got a number of benefits, particularly on sodic and saline soils,” he said.

“But it’s not only is it about growing the crop; this is a whole supply chain based around West Australia.

“We’ll be establishing ground transport, using crushing facilities already situated in WA to crush the crush the seed and extract the oil to export it.”

R&D trials show promise

Mr Hudson said it made more economic sense to expand the industry closer to processing facilities in the south, but Ord farmers would continue to play a crucial role producing seed stock in the north of the state.

The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development recently harvested two variety trials for GO Resources at its Frank Wise Institute of Tropical Agriculture, 20 kilometres from Kununurra.

In addition, a 22-hectare field of safflower seed stock was picked and is being bulked up for the first commercial crops to be planted next year across WA’s grain belt.

DPIRD research station manager Mark Warmington said after years of trial work at the facility, the prospect of helping to pioneer a biofuel industry was exciting.

“We can produce the seed for WA in the off-season, transport it down south, and it’s ready for growers to go,” he said.

“We don’t have to worry about quarantine because it’s grown in the state, so it’s a good all-around fit for us.”

Mr Warmington said if safflower became more economically viable to grow in the north, it could be used as a rotation crop alongside the growing cotton industry.

In southern WA, it will be grown in rotation with canola, which has hit record high prices this year of almost $1,000 a tonne.

Tapping into the growing biofuel market

The growing need for a sustainable and clean energy supply is expected to propel the demand for biofuels across the globe.

Mr Hudson said he was excited about the commercial possibilities to export their biofuel product and for use in machinery on Australian farms.

Initial studies done in collaboration with an Australian lubricant manufacturer show safflower oil to be a superior lubricant that has lower emissions than conventional petroleum-based products and reduces friction and wear on engine components.

“Imagine a farm not only growing the crop, but then turning around and using the lubricants produced by that oil in farm equipment,” Mr Hudson said.

“And we believe that’s a reality in the foreseeable future.”

The estimated value of the worldwide industrial oils and oleochemical market is in excess of $30 billion per annum.


Extracted from ABC

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