U.S. expert speaks at jatropha conference

By Craig A. Johnson | June 17, 2008
The second annual Monographic Conference on Jatropha Curcas was held in Madrid, Spain, in May. The event's purpose was to connect biodiesel producers, firms and entrepreneurs from across the world, while informing them of the biodiesel feedstock and updates to technology.

Global Energy Trading Co.'s Chief Executive Officer James Fanning was one of the 10 experts invited to speak, the only one from the United States. GETCO, founded in 2006 by Fanning, is launching a program designed to mass-cultivate and produce jatropha in underdeveloped nations as an "environmentally friendly worldwide alternative biodiesel fuel."

Fanning's presentation, titled "Economic Impact of Jatropha in Local Communities and International Trade," summed up what GETCO sees as a need in the biodiesel industry: to create sustainable communities and long-term solutions to the world's energy needs. "We looked at jatropha, which has had very little scientific long-term study, because it isn't part of the food chain, it has a 35- to 40-year life cycle, it grows in arid soil, and it's also labor-intensive," he said. "Some people might think [choosing a labor-intensive crop] is crazy."

Many in the biodiesel industry haven't considered jatropha seriously enough as a viable alternative to soy, canola or palm oil, Fanning believes. "When we started a few years ago, African palm was the feedstock of choice along the equatorial line because of its yield at 5,000 kilograms per hectare per year," he said. "The problems came when people tried to take it into colder climates."

Another benefit of jatropha is the long-term yield. While a plant such as soybeans has to be harvested and replanted every year, jatropha can be harvested almost continually over a 30-year period. The plant produces oil-rich seeds nine months out of the year. "When we looked at the research, we found that even the 30-year yield on the jatropha crop makes it economically viable to have labor at formal labor wages in South America," Fanning said. "This allows us to have people employed full-time." He expects future yield improvements, too. "Of all the feedstocks out there, jatropha is the only one that hasn't been genetically modified, meaning the yields can only get better," he said. "Based upon the studies done in the past three or four years, we believe we can get three or four times the yield of today."

The company originally planned to build its own biodiesel production plant. This would further integrate the company vertically but no longer interests Fanning and his team. "We realized that demand is a big part of this business, and we back-burnered the actual production of biodiesel," he said.

GETCO's message to conference attendees was built on the foundation that a company's responsibility to a community is just as important as its drive to realize profits. "Our belief as a commercial entity is that we are as important to the success of any feedstock production as the research and development," Fanning said.
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