‘Breakthrough’ harvesting solution, growing market, potential beyond biodiesel – all good signs for castor oil’s future

November 18, 2018 |

A ‘breakthrough’ mechanical harvesting solution for castor bean plants was developed by Evogene and agricultural equipment manufacturer, Fantini s.r.l., resulting in the removal of a major bottleneck in the conversion of castor beans into a fully modernized commercial crop. With field trial yield losses decreasing significantly (we are talkin’ up to 50% decrease) as a result of this new mechanical harvesting solution, we ask is castor oil becoming too good to flush down the toilet?

Castor oil, long been a constipation remedy, but more recently a cosmetic ingredient, hair growth and conditioning oil product, ingredient for biobased yarn and even shoes. It also has caught the eye of biofuel producers looking for efficient feedstocks for biodiesel. In fact, Evogene was working on biodiesel made from castor oil until recently when it announced that the stand-alone company that was working on it, Evofuel, is currently in a rebranding and renaming process to better reflect its new strategy…i.e. switching from the biofuel market to the industrial castor oil market.

Evofuel has realigned its strategy in light of changes in the biofuel industry and initiated a change in its targeted market from the biofuel industry to the castor oil market for industrial uses and a change in business model – from generating revenues from seed sales, to mainly focus on partnering with castor oil producers on a revenue-sharing basis from oil and other final product sales,” according to their press release.

The castor oil market

For something that was used to grease our insides, the global castor oil market is expected to keep growing as its being used in such a wide range of applications now. And this new mechanical harvesting can help push castor oil into a whole new realm.

“The global castor oil and derivatives market is expected to reach USD 2.3 billion by 2024,” according to Evogene’s press release. “The oil and its derivatives are used in various industrial applications such as: lubricants, surface coatings, cosmetics & pharmaceuticals, plastics & resins and biodiesel. Most of the global castor supply is from India where castor is grown in traditional methods and the harvesting is done manually, creating an unstable supply of castor oil and leading to high price volatility in the market. An industrial mechanized harvesting solution is projected to convert the castor bean into a commercially viable crop which is expected to support stabilizing the supply and to meet the growing demand for castor oil.”

Did you catch that last part? “An industrial mechanized harvesting solution is projected to convert the castor bean into a commercially viable crop…” This could be huge.

The new mechanical harvester is being developed by a consortium of Evofuel and Fantini s.r.l, together with Castor Oil Argentina S.A., an Argentinian company created to introduce castor as an extensive crop in the country, and BioFields SAPI de CV, a Mexican company focused on delivering innovative castor-based bio-products. In the coming months, semi-commercial scale field trials are expected to take place with Castor Oil Argentina S.A. and BioFields SAPI de CV.

Assaf Dotan, CEO of Evofuel, said, “We are happy to announce that together with Fantini s.r.l,   Castor Oil Argentina S.A., and BioFields SAPI de CV, we are on our way to provide a true revolution in the harvesting of castor bean.”

Castor oil’s future for biofuel?

Ok, so Evofuel switched from castor oil to biofuel to castor oil to industrial uses. So what does that mean for the future of castor oil in the biofuels market? Does it mean no one is using castor oil as a biofuel feedstock anymore?

There are people and companies out there still looking at castor oil as a viable biofuel feedstock. In the continent of Africa, there are several countries moving forward on castor oil to biodiesel to help struggling local farmers as well as help alleviate pressure on the need for fuel that seems to only come at high prices.

In South Africa, Thabang Mabapa, a self-confessed curious social entrepreneur and student at Wits University, is making biofuel from castor oil as a way to help the country’s current fuel price crisis as well as help local farmers. “We sell mainly to small-scale farmers and they buy because they see us using it in our tractors at the farm,” said Mabapa.

Mabapa told City Press that he was fortunate that the department of science and technology and a few other sponsors offered support for the research and development, which is still underway for the bio-jet fuel product line. “When we sell our biodiesel and castor oil, some of the revenue is dedicated to research to make sure the bio-jet fuel and bio-gasoline will also be sold commercially at some point,” said Mabapa. “I just focused on biofuel and that is my project, nothing else, and over time our product line expanded to biojet fuel and biogasoline and all this time we got more land for castor seed farming in North West, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape.”

Zimbabwe could also soon join India as one of the leading producers of castor bean. Chief Operations Officer of Life Brand Agric Services, Israel Isdory Kembo, told The Sunday Mail that his company has embarked on an aggressive roll-out of castor bean production. “Currently we are propagating 800 hectares under irrigation to produce seeds which will then be distributed for dry planting in the 2018/2019 season. Castor bean production is a trillion-dollar industry globally and the production scale is skewed in the favor of India and we are working on competing with them in its farming and processing,”

While Kembo considers castor oil as the best biofuel available in terms of per capita yield in the market and as a fuel additive, he recognizes the importance of castor as a whole. “Castor oil has many uses and the good thing is that it has many derivatives,” said Kembo. “And even more, not only is the seed precious, even the stem, leaves and roots of the tree has many uses.”

But with India being a leader, we should mention Arkema’s work this year to help over 1,000 Indian farmers complete what they call the world’s first sustainable castor bean program, even if the castor beans are not being used for biofuel (Arkema uses them for the manufacturing of Rilsan 11 polyamide).

Arkema, BASF, Jayant Agro-Organics, and Solidaridad joined forces on the initiative called Project ‘Pragati’ (Hindi word for progress). With this first-of-its-kind initiative globally, the companies are developing a sustainable castor framework titled ‘SuCCESS’ (Sustainable Castor Caring for Environmental & Social Standards). Key outcomes of the project to date include a yield improvement of 55% vs the 2016 baseline and more than 2,000 hectares of castor farming are now in accordance with the project framework.

Bottom Line

While the castor oil market isn’t moving as fast as the two to six hours that it takes for castor oil to produce bathroom benefits, we see the potential for this bean’s slippery oil, especially with Evogene’s new harvesting method speeding up its commercial potential.

And it’s not just the oil we see value in, especially with the global demand for more biobased alternatives. After all, if we can make shoes and yarn from castor plants, the possibilities seem endless.

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