Jatropha: the dark horse of biofuels enters the race
Jatropha curcas, a perennial and poisonous shrub grown mostly in Africa and Asia, may prove to be the dark horse among the promising new stars of the growing biofuel industry. The fuel is Jatropha oil, which is extracted by crushing the seeds of the plant’s fruit. The remaining husk can also be used as a biomass fertilizer or to power electricity plants.
Since Jatropha has not been properly domesticated and is a new player on the international biofuel scene, not much is known about the shrub. But research and development are changing that. Certain characteristics such as a touted “grow-anywhere” hardiness and a high fuel yield – as much as four times that of soy and up to ten times as much as corn – are making Jatropha an attractive option for farmers, investors and fuel developers. It can also be a “grow your own” fuel option for individual users because it requires no processing. A CNN article from August 11th, 2008 explains how one American citrus farmer is growing Jatropha not as a cash crop, but rather to power his own tractors and thereby avoid high fossil fuel prices. In addition, because Jatropha is poisonous, it isn’t a food stock that might be used to feed cars rather than people. In this way it steers clear of the whole food vs. fuel controversy.
Possible disadvantages and dangers
But is Jatropha all it’s cracked up to be? When burned Jatropha has been found in one study to produce amounts of greenhouse gases such as methane and CO₂. Compared to sugarcane, Jatropha released more methane, and equal levels of CO₂. A new study has also shown Jatropha to be particularly water-greedy among biofuels, soaking up ten times that of sugar beets, the biofuel crop which demands the least amount of water. While Jatropha is a hardy plant that can survive in the desert and on very little water, researchers from the University of Twente in the Netherlands claim that it needs lots in order to flourish. And then there is the matter of its poison. A Reuters article from September 12th, 2007 questioned the safety of growing Jatropha, especially in the developing world, due to the plant’s toxicity.
Jatropha around the world
A New Zealand airliner successfully conducted a two-hour test flight with one of its engines powered by a blend of half Jatropha oil and half ordinary jet fuel.
A short article and accompanying video from the BBC can be seen here.
The Philippines is also embracing Jetropha as a Green fuel of the future. According to a Reuters article dated April 13th, 2009, a blend of 40-50% Jatropha with regular diesel oil performs well in cars with diesel engines. What’s most remarkable is that the diesel cars don’t require any modifications to run on the Jatropha blend. A Philippine company called GreenGold Ray Energies already has operations producing biofuel from Jatropha in the southern Mindanao region of the country.
Though perhaps more of an advertisement for Jatropha biofuel than a critical documentary, the short film The Miracle Bean Jatropha by New Eye Productions highlights a small independent farm in the United States inspired by the Green fuel revolution.
So despite some criticisms and questions regarding Jatropha, it is at least a biofuel source worth exploring and developing. It could fill a niche where other fuel sources are impractical and difficult to cultivate, due to its simplicity of use, production and processing, plus its ability to blend with ordinary diesel. Yet only time will tell if Jatropha will emerge from the fringes of the biofuel industry and live up to what may be a very great potential in the ongoing search for Green energy alternatives.
By Graham Land