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This Purple Plant Has a Secret That Could Replace Synthetic Engine Oil

Popular Mechanics logo Popular Mechanics 8/27/2018 John Wenz
a close up of a flower: The Chinese violet cress has been hiding a never-before-discovered fatty acid that could be a near-perfect lubricant. © Masaki Ikeda / Wikimedia Commons The Chinese violet cress has been hiding a never-before-discovered fatty acid that could be a near-perfect lubricant.

A common garden plant has been keeping a secret, and some researchers think it could, eventually, replace petroleum for engines. Scientists just announced the discovery of two entirely new fatty acids found in the Chinese violet cress. What's more, these compounds are like nothing researchers have ever seen before.

The research was published today in the journal Nature Plants by scientists from the University of Nebraska, Huazhong Agricultural University, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and the University of North Texas.

Chinese violet cress is a member of the Brassica family, which includes mustard, broccoli, cabbage, and turnips. Violet cress is actually closer to rapeseed and its derivative, canola. But while canola oil is a common household product, violet cress has never been particularly cultivated for its oil. Perhaps that's why no one had ever delved into the chemical particulars.

"It’s not a widely eaten plant," says Edgar Cahoon, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher and author on the study. "You can eat it, but you wouldn’t necessarily find it on the menu at a restaurant if you were in Beijing."

Cahoon and company noticed something unusual when they looked deeper into the unusual qualities of this plant oil: long chains of hydroxyls in complex configurations. The new fatty acids have 24 carbon atoms each, while most in the group have 16 or 18. They've been titled Wuhanic and Nebraskanic oils, owing to the universities behind the research. The presence of hydroxyls-water-like compounds of hydrogen and oxygen-allows for a lengthened chain.

"People who have done these analyses have missed that the oil contains these fatty acids because they’re just so different and don’t behave the way other similar oils do," Cahoon says.

After the fatty acids were discovered, they were sent off to the University of North Texas for further study. There, the scientists found a new use for them: They work spectacularly well as a lubricant. The oil works similar to castor oil, but more efficiently at high temperatures. While castor oil can become gummy in engines, the violet cress oil has less of a tendency to do this. In theory, this could pave the way for breeding violet cress to use its oil to replace petroleum or synthetics as a lubricant in engines. (Like castor oil, it's unlikely to be used as a cooking oil because it will, uhh, move right through you.)

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Scaling up production of the Chinese violet cress shouldn't be too hard. "Like any other brassica, they don’t like heat, so you just really have to have a temperate climate," Cahoon says. But unlike its close cousin, the rapeseed, it hasn't been extensively cultivated. Rapeseed was bred into a new plant, canola, that has a higher yield of oil per seed. Violet cress only has about 50 percent that oil output, but selective breeding could make it a viable option.

“This oil doesn’t just have the potential to supplement or replace petroleum-based oil; it can also replace synthetics," Diane Berman of the University of North Texas said in a press release. "It is a renewable solution to a limited-resource problem.”


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