Growing Green, Growing Hope

Similar to the growth pattern of the plant itself, interest in developing jatropha as a feedstock for biodiesel production is growing like a weed. The contracts that have been penned between companies like U.K.-based D1 Oils PLC and farmers in India and Africa are stimulating agricultural communities in some of the poorest nations in the world.
By Lindsey Irwin | March 15, 2007
Karl Watkin started D1 Oils PLC with several partners in the late 1990s on the cusp of the biodiesel buzz in Europe. Although an entrepreneur's nature is to eagerly jump into lucrative projects and quickly move on, Watkin soon discovered that he needed to take his time with this project. Watkin, who served as chairman and CEO of D1 until Jan. 7 and is still an active board member, began the company as a simple refinery to produce biodiesel from rapeseed, D1 Communications Director Graham Prince, DI says. Then it blossomed into a multi-pronged, worldwide biodiesel business after the discovery of a less expensive feedstock called Jatropha curcas.

Jatropha is a fast-growing tree that, depending on how the plants are started, can take up to one to five years mature. The trees can be started using three different methods, according to Abhishek Maharshi, CEO of the Centre for Jatropha Promotion and Biodiesel (CJP) based in Rajasthan, India. Plants raised through the standard seedling method start yielding fruit in the second year, direct seeding plants bear fruit after three years, whereas plants propagated by stem cuttings may yield in the first year, Maharshi says.

While D1 waits for its jatropha plantations to mature, the business designs, builds, owns, markets and operates refineries. It also sources, transports and trades seeds and seedlings, seedcake, crude vegetable oils, and biodiesel.

Not long after Watkin and his business partners formed D1 and developed the design for the D 120 basic refinery module-an 8,000 metric-ton-per-year (2.5 MMgy) biodiesel plant that's manufactured in pieces for easy transport and shipment-rapeseed and soy oil prices began to rise. Through various contacts, Watkin and Alex Worrall, another D1 investor, identified jatropha as a possible alternative to the conventional feedstocks.

"Essentially, the aim was to get a fuel that we could actually get at a low cost, and in high volume that wasn't going to be subject to price pressures," Prince says. "The reason that jatropha has that characteristic is that the oil is inedible and there is no way that it would ever be used as a cooking oil or a protein source for people." The toxin called curcin makes the oil unfit for consumption.

There are other key attributes that make jatropha an attractive feedstock, Prince says. Jatropha is a tree that grows three to five meters (10 to 16 feet) tall. The trees bear fruit that contain seeds, which are crushed to produce oil. The tree has a life span of up to 50 years, it grows well on marginal soil, and there's little preprocessing work that needs to be done before the oil is refined, Prince says.

No one really knows for sure when and where jatropha originated. Research shows that it was most likely first used by Native American communities in pre-Colombian times in Mexico, Prince says. The word jatropha means "doctor food," and is derived from the Greek words iatrof, which means doctor, and tropha, or food. It was given the name because of its medicinal properties, Prince explains. It was also commonly known as "physic nut" for its healing powers as an antiseptic. The wood and bark of the plant were used to produce a dye, and the seeds were crushed into oil that was used to fuel primitive wick lamps. Later, it was used as a demarcate crop to mark boundaries to keep grazing animals like cows and goats from wandering into and eating more valuable food crops, Prince says. Jatropha likely spread from South and Central America to where it grows abundantly today in areas of Africa, India and Southeast Asia by the Portuguese who brought seeds aboard for medicine as they sailed the Triangle Trade to buy and sell slaves and sugar, Prince says.

No one had explored the use of jatropha as a biodiesel fuel source until World War II when the oil embargo prompted the Japanese and Germans to experiment with a number of oil substitutes, such as coal and synthetic petrol. Following the war, cheap oil prices caused all interest in the crop to vanish until the oil shock of the 1970s. At that time, the United Nations began research, and plantations were established in Nicaragua. Those plantations still stand today despite the Contra War, hurricanes and poor crop management, Prince says. "They are actually one of the main sources of data for the yields," he says. "We figure if the plantations there, which haven't really been looked after and have sustained a fair amount of damage and neglect, can still produce good yields, with a bit of crop management we should be on our way to getting better performance out of it," Prince says.

Jatropha stacks up nicely compared with other feedstocks, according to data from the CJP. Maharshi says soybeans and rapeseed have a relatively low oil yield compared with jatropha. About 375 kilograms per hectare of soybeans in the United States (280 gallons per acre) and 1,000 kilograms per hectare of rapeseed in Europe (740 gallons per acre) to 3,000 kilograms per hectare of jatropha (2,226 gallons per acre) in India. Good planning, quality planting material, standardized agronomy practices and good crop management could increase yields, Maharshi says.

Around the World
With good yields and cheap prices, jatropha made sense economically as a biodiesel feedstock, but as D1 associates delved deeper, they realized there was another plus-its sustainability benefits. Prince says Watkin began to get excited when he considered just "what the effect could be on the economies of the developing countries planting this stuff in terms of creating jobs and revitalizing agricultural communities that in some places had been driven out of business by highly subsidized food imports from the U.S. and the EU." That became the deciding factor in naming jatropha D1's primary feedstock, Prince says.

Currently, D1 produces biodiesel from soy oil in anticipation of the harvest of the 125,000 hectares (309,000 acres) of jatropha it has planted. These crops, which D1 has contracted with various growers in India and Africa to grow, will be ready some time next year, Prince says. D1's primary feedstock is being grown in northern India, but the company also has agreements in central India and Zambia. It also has a plantation in Swaziland as part of an entrepreneurship involving D1 and Worrall's new biomass electricity generation business, Helius Energy PLC.

Following D1's lead in India and Africa, a number of countries are investing in jatropha. According to the CJP, the Indian petroleum ministry estimates that, by 2009, India will have approximately 3.1 million hectares (7.7 million acres) planted to jatropha. Others countries, such as Namibia, Kenya, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nigeria, The Philippines, Madagascar, Panama and Mexico are either already growing the crop or have plans to begin producing it in the near future.

The one thing that's holding back more widespread jatropha production is that currently there are no mechanical harvesting methods. The plants must be picked by hand during the four- to five-month harvest period, Prince says. Due to its labor-intensive nature and associated costs, even if jatropha could grow in the drier areas of developed countries, such as parts of California, it's not economical. However, it might be more economical once a mechanical harvesting method is developed, Prince says. Harvesting the crop, makes more economic sense in developing countries where the labor is cheaper, Maharshi says.

Beyond the basic use of jatropha for biodiesel fuel, profits may be increased from the sale of coproducts, Prince says. The seed can be used to make soap, candles, pesticides and a natural fertilizer. However, "if we could identify where the toxin is, whether it's in the seed or a particular part of the seed or even in the seed casing, it might be possible to detoxify it to the point that we can process the meal seed cake for animal feed," Prince says.

As the excitement over the potential for this green gold intensifies, however, one can't help but approach with caution. Although not an issue as of yet, the food-versus-fuel argument is a valid concern. Could jatropha displace needed food crops, such as groundnuts and sorghum, as farmers rush to make a quick buck? Jatropha production certainly is attractive based on its yield alone. If it becomes a commercially grown crop, which it seems poised to do, there could be a backlash. Prince doesn't believe jatropha competes with food crops, however, as the countries in which jatropha can be grown have no shortage of land. Most of the land that's not being used as cropland was cleared of forest years ago and was used either for grazing or cash crop production. That land was later abandoned after the soil was stripped of its nutrients. Other land that's not currently being farmed is unsuitable for crop production because of climate change. For example, in Swaziland, dry conditions have made it impossible to grow sugar in some areas where it was once produced in abundance, Prince says. "There is no point in providing either developing or developed countries with biofuels whose very production creates more problems in terms of environmental destruction than it consoles," Prince says. "I think jatropha has the flexibility of the sort of land where it can grow that it answers [the food-versus-fuel] question. "It's very early, but it's looking very promising," he adds.

Lindsey Irwin is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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