FORT COLLINS--Imagine a motor oil that cuts automobile pollution by 40 percent. Duane Johnson doesn't have to imagine such a product anymore--he's made it a reality. Johnson, a Colorado State University Cooperative Extension new and alternative crops specialist, developed a lubricant made from canola oil, a seed crop grown in Colorado. The canola-based lubricant drastically reduces automobile engine emissions compared to emissions from traditional motor oils.
Canola oil is traditionally used as a cooking oil, especially in Asian foods. However, with processing adjustments, it is as effective an engine lubricant as any traditional motor oil.
"The benefits of using a canola-based oil in place of petroleum motor oil don't stop with reduced automobile emissions," said Johnson. "Processing canola into oil produces no waste. By-products include only oil and ground seeds, called meal, which can be feed to livestock. There is no waste from the plant, and the production of the oil does not contribute to air pollution."
Johnson added that because canola oil is produced from a seed, it is a renewable resource--unlike petroleum. It's also easier to dispose of canola oil than its petroleum counterpart. The oil meets United States Environmental Protection Agency standards for solid waste disposal, and accidental spills are considered non-hazardous.
"Using canola oil in place of petroleum oils would drastically cut hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions from cars," said Johnson. "That's a great benefit in areas such as the Front Range. And, when burned in an engine, canola oil smells like popcorn."
Used canola oil from automobile engines can be recycled into greases and chain oils. These products are called "total loss lubricants" because they leave no residual or waste. Johnson, who drives an old Volkswagen Beetle lubricated with canola motor oil, can also attest to its efficiency and durability.
So why isn't the oil available to the general public? Besides competition from petroleum products, there are several other obstacles to overcome.
"Because canola motor oil is essentially a vegetable oil, the American Petroleum Institute will not certify it," Johnson said. "And, automobile manufacturers require that only API-certified oil be used in their engines or manufacturer warranties are void."
Johnson, who identifies markets for new and alternative crops that can be raised in Colorado, initiated a canola-crop project in Colorado's San Luis Valley in 1986. The canola crop flourished, but the cost of shipping the harvested crop to a processing plant proved too expensive. Two years later, however, Johnson and John Rhodes, a Monte Vista farmer, raised funds to design and build a facility to toast canola seeds for salad topping. In 1990, Johnson used his personal funds to purchase an oil press to produce cooking oil. Through such projects, Johnson is able to achieve his most important goal--providing rural development and support and improving profitability for farmers through the commercialization of new products.
Johnson started developing canola motor oil in 1993 at the request of Agro Management Group Inc., a Colorado Springs-based agricultural research, development and marketing corporation. Johnson teamed with Agro Management, a business that specializes in finding new uses for old crops and developing new technologies for alternative crops. As a state-funded educational institution, Colorado State is prohibited from marketing products for commercial use. Agro Management acquired the patent rights to the canola oil, which is now patented in Europe, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Japan.
Canola motor oil is gradually gaining commercial acceptance. Wisconsin and Michigan state governments are in contract negotiations with Agro Management to use the oil in state-owned vehicles. Canola is already an emerging industry in these states, and Johnson estimates it will take 200,000 acres of canola to supply motor oil for Wisconsin's fleet of state vehicles. Officials in New Zealand are considering a similar agreement.
If canola motor oil replaced just 5 percent of the petroleum oil used today, the United States market for canola motor oil would be roughly 50 million gallons. To meet that demand, canola crops would require as much land as is now devoted to corn production.
Canola motor oil, which is about the same weight as 10W-30 oil, is expected to be priced at $1.50 per quart, only a few cents more than petroleum-based motor oils. But consumers won't have to pay to dispose of used canola oil as they do petroleum oil.
Materials provided by Colorado State University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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