Jatropha: The Great Biofuel Hope that Fizzled Out
“Aviation took another step toward using renewable fuels, with a two-hour jatropha-fueled test flight by Air New Zealand,” a blogger on the Wall Street Journal‘s Environmental Capital blog wrote, adding that “the flight was longer and included a richer mix of biofuel than an earlier flight by Virgin.”
Reporting on the historic Air New Zealand flight, the first time a commercial airline tested jatropha-based fuel in flight, a New York Times article stated that jatropha oil was used in a 50-50 blend with conventional jet fuel in one of the four Rolls-Royce engines powering a Boeing 747-400, and that Air New Zealand officials were hopeful of jatropha being approved and commercially produced as an aviation fuel within five years.
But less than a year after that Air New Zealand flight, a blog on Environmental Capital appeared: “BP has indeed given up on jatropha, the shrub once touted as the great hope for biofuels, and walked away from its jatropha joint venture for less than $1 million.”
What was the big deal with jatropha and what subsequently happened to it?
Most biofuel crops, including soybeans, corn, sugar cane, rapeseed et al, need lots of water, fertilizer and good land — the same land that can be used for growing food. This has always been the tension at the heart of the biofuel proposition: “Do we grow crops to power cars or feed starving people?”
But jatropha had the distinct virtue of being inedible, so there was no food-or-energy debate. As National Public Radio described it recently, jatropha is a rather large bush with leaves and fruit pods that are poisonous to humans. Its pods contain black seeds, each one about twice the size of a coffee bean that when crushed produces oil suitable for conversion into diesel fuel.
Also, as the WSJ reported in 2008, it was thought at the time that jatropha, which grew wild in tough conditions, needed little water or fertilizer and can grow in arid land, such as “sandy, saline or otherwise infertile soil.” Growing jatropha for biofuel in such places wouldn’t be taking food out of anybody’s mouth. Plus, jatropha was seen as a hardy plant, affected by few pests or diseases.
Reported in the journal Nature in 2007, chemists at DaimlerChrysler’s Stuttgart labs analyzed jatropha and found it met European technical standards. Further tests showed that it outperformed biodiesel from rapeseed, sunflower and soya bean oil in its lack of propensity to oxidize, having fully satisfied performance requirements in power, efficiency and emissions.
That set biofuel advocates into a tizzy. Jatropha seemed the perfect biofuel — high-yielding, inedible and otherwise unusable and capable of being grown in inhospitable places with low amounts of water.
But what was learned was that while jatropha grew in forbidding places under arid conditions, it didn’t produce much oil under those conditions. To get viable, commercial-scale oil yields, jatropha needs fertile land and plenty of water — just like, well, corn and soybeans and other commercial crops. As it turned out, to get biofuel from jatropha does, in fact, require fertile land, which means taking food out of somebody’s mouth.
Jatropha is still grown on plantations in places with more than enough land that is otherwise useless: Brazil, China, India, some African countries and the Philippines. India, in particular, has embraced jatropha, especially by small-scale farmers funded by microcredit schemes.
Jatropha does seem to have more of a future in India than in most other places. The Nature article explained in 2007:
Of 306 million hectares of land considered in a report by India’s Ministry of Rural Development, 173 million are already under cultivation but the rest is classified as either eroded farmland or non-arable wasteland. That’s the sort of land that jatropha can thrive on, with bushes living up to 50 years, fruiting annually for more than 30 years and weathering droughts with aplomb.
But jatropha is no longer seriously considered a silver-bullet biofuel. There are modest ambitions with it to be a contributor to the overall biofuel stock. Last September SG Biofuels, a San Diego-based company backed by Airbus SAS, announced that it would ”plant 75,000 acres of jatropha in Brazil to power aircraft for about $50 a barrel less than traditional jet fuel.”
Bloomberg reported that at the time, the plans were for unrefined jatropha oil to sell for $75 a barrel, according to SG Biofuels President Kirk Haney. He told Bloomberg that jatropha “is the most practical way of blending with jet fuel today” and “the development of higher-yielding seeds is expected to bring prices down to $38 a barrel in 10 years.”
Jatropha can be a modestly profitable option in areas where, again, the land isn’t suited for much else. NPR recounted how back in the giddy days, Mozambique farmers, for example, were told to rip everything out and plant jatropha, jatropha and more jatropha and that fuel companies were going to buy up all of it. Mozambique’s president personally went from village to village to tell people to plant jatropha trees. Homegrown fuel, he said, could turn life around for small villages. Many villagers planted jatropha, but the deep-pocketed buyers never materialized.
Low-tech, small-scale farming of jatropha can be profitable, and for farmers working inhospitable land, it might be a good option. But the days when jatropha was seen as the Great Green Hope for biofuel are a distant memory.