Newly Discovered Fatty Acids Could Replace Petroleum Oil

Two new fatty acids have been discovered potentially changing the landscape of petroleum oil.
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September 12, 2018 - 6:45am

A researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is part of a team that has discovered two new fatty acids in a plant native to China. The plant is the Chinese violet cress and the fatty acids could be the next step in getting away from petroleum-based oil and even synthetics. Dr. Edgar Cahoon says "Science, when done best, is highly collaborative and often transcends international borders, even in complicated political times."


Brandon McDermott, NET News: It's been a long time since someone's found a new component of vegetable oil. Have people analyzed this plant before? If so, how did they miss these fatty acids that you and the team found?

Dr. Edgar Cahoon, University of Nebraska-Lincoln: People have analyzed this particular vegetable oil before and they completely missed these fatty acids because of the type of analytical method they were using, just wasn't suited for identifying this particular oil, the components of the oil, and we just got lucky, that we tried a method -- that in fact high school students use -- to separate lipids and pigments that uncovered a new type of oil from this plant.

One of the fatty acids was named "Nebraskanic," after the Cornhusker state. (Infographic courtesy of Scott Schrage, UNL)

McDermott: Will this be able to potentially replace what we know as fossil fuel oil?

Dr. Cahoon: I don't know that it will replace fossil fuel oil, but I think it will be a compliment to current petroleum-based lubricants and might be useful for some specialty lubricant applications because of the novel functionality that this oil has.

McDermott: Are there any kind of specific specialty applications this could have with lubricants?

Dr. Cahoon: In the study what we showed is that we did metal on metal lubrication experiments and compared it to castor bean oil -- which is one of the high-performance vegetable oils -- and at high temperatures that performed better than castor bean oil in these particular studies. These types of studies translate to like engine oil, for example.

McDermott: What would this mean, say, at a larger quantity -- if there was a potential oil spill from this -- how would that compare to what we see today with synthetic or fossil fuel oil?

Seeds from the Chinese violet cress, where two fatty acids were recently discovered. (Courtesy Dr. Edgar Cahoon)

Dr. Cahoon: Microbes in the environment have adapted it to using fatty acids as energy sources so, if there were an oil spill this would not cause really any environmental problems because it would in fact be the energy source for the microbes and probably be quickly broken down.

McDermott: This oil doesn't just have the potential to complement petroleum or synthetic-based oil, it can also help complement synthetics. How is this so?

Dr. Cahoon: We're still trying to figure out some aspects of the structure of the oil. We think that they are arrangement of the fatty acids and the oil molecules is a little different – it's actually quite different than other vegetable oils – and we think that if we can figure out how these fatty acids are arranged that this may be nature guiding us to design better synthetic lubricants.

McDermott: In the research that your team did, you also looked at how fatty acids are made and it kind of changed the way you looked at it – maybe some things that aren't written in the textbooks.

Dr. Cahoon: We were quite excited that we stumbled upon – by looking at the genetics and the biochemistry – what's going on in the seed and figured out that what we know about fatty acid elongation about how fatty acids are made in the seed is quite different than what is in the textbooks. This is one area that we're continuing to investigate.

The Chinese violet cress plant which is native to the Central parts of China. (Courtesy Dr. Edgar Cahoon)

McDermott: This has applications potentially with lubricants, potential applications when you're talking about complementing fossil fuel oil, but how about being edible – can we eat this stuff?

Dr. Cahoon: Well my suggestion would be not to eat it, because it has a chemical structure that something that's somewhat similar to castor oil and I think we know that the laxative effects have castor oil, and my suspicion is that the oil would have the same properties or same effect on people. (laughs)

McDermott: Along with finding these fatty acids, you and your team are able to name them. Tell us about the interesting part of that.

Dr. Cahoon: These fatty acids hadn't been described before in the literature and so when you find something new in the fatty acid world you have the opportunity to name it. So we named one of the fatty acids “Nebraskanic acid” after the Cornhusker state, the state we're proud to be working in, and also after the city of Wuhan in China, where one of our investigators is located at Huazhong Agricultural University.

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