Picture this: One day in the future, you pull into a service station and fill the tank of your biofuels-powered car with fuel made from okra seed, or castor seed.

Okra, an oilseed? Castor oil as a fuel — that nasty stuff some of us remember as childhood cure-alls for everything from stomachache to ingrown toenails?

Far-fetched? Maybe not, says Brian Baldwin, a geneticist and professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at Mississippi State University. He and other researchers there are working with a number of plants that may have potential in the years ahead to help wean the U.S. from petroleum.

(See article on High-yielding miscanthus for ethanol.)

“Oilseeds are too important to ignore as a potential for energy production,” Baldwin says. “It took 20 years or so for research to get a handle on commercialization of soybean oil, and look where that has gone. We now have a lot of insight and research on the chemistry of crop oils, so we’re looking at possibilities in other oils.

“Oil companies are really interested in this work; with these products they can use their same pipelines, transport trucks, and other infrastructure, unlike ethanol which requires special handling.”

Baldwin’s team is working with castor germplasm in a collaborative effort with Texas Tech University, Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, and Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ New York State Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva.

“Some of the tests here are looking very good,” he says. “Daniel Barnes, a graduate student, is looking at ways to shut down toxin production in castor seeds (ricin is among the deadliest natural poisons).

“Castor oil is much too valuable a product to ignore research with this plant. A soybean is about 17 percent oil, cottonseed about 20 percent, canola about 30 percent to 35 percent, but castor seed is 60 percent oil. The oil has some unique characteristics, with a number of industrial applications. It’s used extensively in nylon, cosmetics, paints, and some medicines.

“We’re looking at okra seed as a short season oil crop. Okra is in the same family as cotton, but unlike cottonseed, which has gossypol that makes the meal unfit for human consumption, okra oil and meal are fully edible. We’re trying to get a handle on yield potential from large scale okra production.”

But the crop with huge potential for bio-oil, Baldwin notes, is wood, and the South is blanketed with millions of acres of pine trees.

“Producing ethanol from wood is energy-inefficient because of its high lignin content. Lignin is highly resistant to chemical conversion, and you lose about half the energy in wood in the conversion process.”

But producing bio-oil is a different story, Baldwin says. “Using a pyrolysis process, the cellulose in wood can be converted to syngas or bio-oil. In this case, the best feedstock is wood.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com