Two biodiesel plants open in Guatemala

By Erin Voegele | January 15, 2009
A Food for Progress project led by Texas A&M University's Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture has led to the development of two biodiesel production plants along the western coast of Guatemala, one in Masagua and another in Nueva Concepcion. The facilities are part of a larger agricultural project funded by a $3 million USDA grant initially awarded in 2005.

The plants use locally produced jatropha oil as a feedstock but also operate their own seed presses. Each has the capacity to produce approximately 80 gallons of biodiesel per day and 25,000 gallons annually.

Each facility is run by a farmer-owned cooperative. To date, approximately 70 local farmers have become involved in the project, according to Travis Miller, a Texas AgriLife Extension Service agronomist at Texas A&M in College Station. The farmers will be using biodiesel primarily to fuel farm equipment, although there may be opportunities to sell the fuel in the future.

Jatropha has traditionally been used for natural fencing in Guatemala, Miller said. There are thousands of kilometers of this fence throughout Guatemala and other Central American countries, and the vast majority of jatropha oil processed by the two biodiesel facilities is being sourced from these fences. However, many of the plants found within the fences produce low yields. Miller said this is due in part to the way the jatropha is planted-as close as six inches apart. One way to increase yields is to space the plants at seven- or eight-foot intervals. "I think we can get significant yields off that fence line without really changing anything-other than how we manage the trees and the fence line," he said. "They'll still make a good fence when spaced out."

Local communities can benefit from jatropha growth, as well. "We're taking something that would have been of minimal use and creating value out of it," Miller said. "There is an opportunity to really make a difference in income for these people and expand it to places where there truly is very little value to the land." In addition to fuel production, farmers can use jatropha seed cake as fertilizer, and the biodiesel byproduct glycerin to produce candles, according to Johanna Roman, the Latin American programs coordinator for the Borlaug Institute and project manager for the Guatemalan Food for Progress project.

The next step of the project will include the establishment of jatropha plantations and nurseries, which has been funded by a second USDA grant worth $3.5 million, Roman said.

The institute plans to work with several small growers to establish plantations, rather than working with one large plantation. Some farmers have already begun intercropping jatropha with their other crops.

Miller said he hopes the project will serve as an economic model that will improve rural development in Guatemala and other Central American countries. The Food for Progress program also aims to improve agricultural techniques, such as the establishment of greenhouses, irrigation systems and food processing facilities. Farmer education is part of the program, as well.
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