USDA helps establish Guatemalan biodiesel plants

By Ryan C. Christiansen | January 01, 2009
Web exclusive posted Dec. 17, 2008 at 10:55 a.m. CST

The Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University has helped to establish a cooperative biodiesel plant in Masagua, Guatemala, that will use jatropha oil as its feedstock. Funded by the USDA's Food for Progress program, the Biodiesel Mazat Agui facility in the country's coastal region of Escuintla began operations this month. A second jatropha-fed biodiesel plant will open later this month in Nueva Concepcion, approximately 40 miles from Masagua. Both plants have oilseed presses and biodiesel reactors capable of producing 29,200 gallons of biodiesel per year.

"This will be an example for other communities because the facility will be using native jatropha and not corn, soybeans or other food products to produce biodiesel," said Fernando Roca, president of the newly formed cooperative, Biodiesel Mazat Agui, S.A.

According to Johanna Roman, Latin American programs coordinator for the Borlaug Institute, the farmers near the facilities initially will use the biodiesel to fuel their own farm equipment. Eventually, the plants might sell biodiesel to local industry. Roman said the meal leftover from pressing the jatropha seeds might be used as fertilizer and the glycerin produced during the biodiesel production process might be used to manufacture soap or candles.

The goal for the farmers involved is to harvest jatropha seeds twice a year at a yield of 5,000 to 6,000 pounds per acre, which at 33 to 35 percent oil content results in 225 to 250 gallons of straight vegetable oil, said Travis Miller, a Texas AgriLife Extension Service agronomist from TAMU in College Station, Texas. He said the oilseed presses are designed to process 100 to 150 pounds of seed per hour and the batch-style biodiesel reactors can process 80 gallons of biodiesel per day. Miller has been helping farmers find better ways to grow and harvest jatropha in the Escuintla region.

Until now, jatropha primarily has been used in Guatemala as a natural fencing material, Miller said. "There are thousands of kilometers of fences in that part of the world that are jatropha," he said. "They plant it close together, string barbed wire, and prune it back every year to kind of keep it dense and they have a very nice fence." Miller said the farmers have been encouraged to manage the jatropha fence lines to also grow oilseeds. Currently, the fence line jatropha plants are spaced only about six inches apart, which is "too thick to grow a lot of seed," he said.

Miller said the jatropha biodiesel project was started in December 2007, just before the third year of the grant started. He said while the Institute was helping farmers with other activities, such as food preservation and cut flower production, the farmers asked about using jatropha to make biodiesel. "There was a great deal of interest," Miller said, "and so we pursued it further. We provided them with some best management practices for how to plant jatropha for biodiesel production and about maybe intercropping with maize, millet, or other crops."

According to Miller, the cooperative is made up of about 70 very small farmers in an area where a 25-acre farm would be large and per capita income averages $2 per day. If the farmers can begin producing enough biodiesel to sell outside the cooperative, there is enough diesel-powered industry in Guatemala to satisfy the demand, he said. The air quality in Guatemala suffers from the proliferation of petroleum diesel and biodiesel would help to improve the quality of life there, Miller added.

Miller said the biodiesel project will continue under a renewed USDA Food for Progress grant and he hopes to see more biodiesel plants built in Guatemala and throughout Central America, "where this stuff grows wild," he said.
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