Growing demand for oil
The world is running low on oils. Demand is forecast to grow rapidly in coming years owing to rising world population, increasing per capita food oil consumption, and accelerating demand for biofuels.
It is estimated that in 20 years' time we will need 50 per cent more plant-based oils. This growth needs to be supplied using essentially the same amount of land and natural resource inputs.
Putting oil into leaves, stems etc.
The majority of plant-based oils come from the oil-rich seeds and fruits of a limited number of specialised oil crops, such as canola, soybean, sunflower, olive, coconut and oil palm.
Our scientists have studied how plants make oil in their seeds and used this knowledge to switch on this high-level oil production in vegetative tissue, such as stems and leaves.
The technology effectively utilises solar energy captured by the plant to convert the leaf's starch reserves into more energy-dense oil molecules, which significantly increases the energy value of the vegetative tissue where the oil accumulates.
Creating the next oil boom
In some plant species, we have achieved 35 per cent oil content in the leaves under greenhouse conditions, which is a similar range as in many oilseed crops. The high oil trait was largely confirmed when plants were grown in the field.
The oils we produce in the leafy biomass are normal triglyceride type oils – just like canola oil, soybean oil, and other vegetable oils – and are distinct from the essence-type oils already produced in some other plants (such as eucalyptus or lavender).
Our results have shown for the first time that leaves can be turned into efficient oil factories. This means we can potentially produce very high yields of vegetable oil in high biomass crops like switchgrass, sugarcane and sorghum as a novel sustainable source of energy-dense oil for food, feed, biomaterials and biofuels markets.