Industrial oils from above the ground, not below it

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With pressure mounting to reduce dependence on petroleum products, CSIRO has convened the meeting to coincide with the International Symposium on Plant Lipids which is being held in Cairns from July 11-16.

'In the face of increasing CO2 emissions and the knowledge that petroleum reserves are finite, it is imperative to develop and implement the technologies needed to help switch to a bio-based materials economy,' CSIRO Plant Industry Deputy Chief Dr Allan Green said.

'Plant oils, whether they come from oil crops or algal fermentation systems, provide one of the most promising routes to meeting these challenges.'

It will not be possible to produce enough plant oil to significantly reduce the massive four billion tonnes of petroleum-based fuels being used every year. However, the amount of oil required to make other materials such as oil-based industrial chemicals and lubricants is better matched to what could be potentially produced from plants. Globally, about 400 million tonnes of petrochemicals are used annually, while renewable plant-based oils currently supply 125 million tonnes of oil for food and industrial uses with considerable potential for further increases.

Delegates will discuss the opportunities and challenges of breeding better oil-producing plants and engineering the oils they produce to more closely match the petrochemicals currently used to make synthetic products like lubricants, resins, varnishes, plastics and polymers. The Cairns meeting will also address ways of providing increasing amounts of plant oils for industrial use without compromising on production of food oils and food crops.

'One challenge is to develop the technologies to supply future oil needs for both food and materials without occupying farming land used for other food crops', Dr Green said.

'Our Crop Biofactories Initiative (CBI) has been researching production of industrial oils in crops such as safflower that are complementary to cereals and potentially deliver farmers an additional source of income as well as agronomic benefits in their cropping systems.'

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