Running on Camelina: Pressing Oil Seed to Meet Pressing Energy Needs

LA CROSSE, Wash. – La Crosse-area farmer Steve Camp is squeezing a lot out of the camelina he grew last summer – highly nutritious livestock feed, oil that can be used for cooking, and perhaps most importantly, biodiesel that provides growing energy independence and another step toward on-farm sustainability.

“I have to be able to know what my costs are in this business, and so many of our costs any more are driven from oversea prices,” Camp said. “Fuel and fertilizer are two of the largest costs we have. I know from year to year what fuel is going to cost if I make it myself, but if I have to buy it at the pump, I don’t know if it’s going to be $2 a gallon or $6, and when it gets into that higher range, that’s a disaster waiting to happen for any type of agriculture.”

The fifth-generation wheat and barley grower has been growing camelina for the past three years. Working with Washington State University scientists Scott Hulbert and Bill Pan, he continues to refine his cropping practices and looks forward to the variety advances that plant science can bring. “They have been very good to work with,” he said. “There’s a lot about camelina that we don’t know that plant scientists will be able to tell us.”

The first year, he had his seed commercially pressed and processed; the next year, he pressed his seed using a press from the Whitman County Conservation District. For the first time this year, he established a complete oil pressing, biodiesel-processing operation in his shop. With help from conservation district, he keeps two presses running nearly around the clock. The outputs are diverse and impressive.

The first by-product is the meal left after the oil is squeezed out of it. “The FDA has certified that up to 10 percent of livestock feed for chickens, hogs and beef cattle can be made of camelina meal,” Camp said. “It is high in protein and very high in omega 3s.”

And while he characterized the market as “emerging,” Camp said, “I see a good market coming. I have people calling throughout the year looking to buy camelina meal.”

The camelina oil itself can be used for cooking or dressing salads, Camp said, but he’s using every bit of oil he presses to process into biodiesel.

With help from a Natural Resources Conservation Service “Conservation Innovation Grant”, Camp has purchased a three-stage processor that turns camelina oil into biodiesel. The first stage pre-heats the oil to 110 degrees to allow the oil to separate from any water. In the mixing tank, the oil is heated to 130 degrees, and a lye-based catalyst is added. It is then transferred into the “flash tank.” There, it is heated to 150 degrees, the point at which the unwanted methynol “flashes” or evaporates. A final run through another filter process, and the biodiesel is ready for use.

Camp said 65 gallons of oil will generate more than 60 gallons of biodiesel.

A by-product of camelina seed pressing is a highly nutritious meal increasingly used in livestock feed. Click image for a high resolution version

“I think this is a very viable project,” he said. “I would like to see it taken on as a community issue. People could do it themselves, but economically, it is much more advantageous for several people to go together to purchase the equipment and pool their time to make this happen.”

He will have an opportunity to demonstrate the process this year. As part of the NRCS grant, he will be putting his whole operation on a trailer, and in conjunction with the conservation district press, travel the region and conduct demonstrations at a variety of locations and events.

Eventually, he said, he would like to see the concept of small oil processing plants be adopted by more than the farming community.

“It is one of the answers to the fuel issues we’re facing as a nation,” he said. “We can take the dependency on foreign oil away.”

Camp agrees that it would take many, many acres of oilseed crops to completely replace petroleum-based fuels with biodiesel in the U.S., “but we can certainly make a large dent in it, and that gives us a stability as a nation and in each of the communities that does this.”