Sunday, February 1, 2009

Jatropha: A bio-fuel panacea?

The use of bio-fuels as alternative sources of energy has long been a subject of intense debate among its proponents and its critics.  Some of the points raised by critics of bio-fuels, like Mr. Peter Brabeck - Letmathe, the chairman of Nestle (in an article in the Wall Street Journal1) are that,

1) Bio fuels are unreliable.

2) They have triggered a massive reorientation of agricultural land towards their production (130 million tons of corn in the US alone for bio-fuel production) having disastrous consequences on the food front.

3) Bio-fuels create water shortages in many areas and worsen them in places where they are already endemic.  

Jatropha plant is being seen by many to be an answer to the issues raised above. It is an ideal bio-fuel crop. Goldman Sachs [2] has rated it to be the perfect biodiesel crop. "Jatropha" in Greek literally means 'medicinal plant'. It is a traditional bush that has been found in the wild in Central America for centuries and was brought to Europe by the Portugese in the 16th century and has since spread all over the world.

Jatropha is drought resistant, thrives on virtually any kind of soil, including desert and other non-arable soils and requires minimum amounts of inputs like fertilizers, pesticides etc. Since the jatropha plant can grow in virtually any kind of soil; these lands need not be strictly agricultural. The Indian Railways[12]  has plans to cultivate jatropha along the sides of railway tracks and other surplus waste lands under its possession and produce bio-fuels which would be used to blend with conventional diesel for its usage. Moreover, Jatropha yields many times as much bio-fuel per acre as compared to corn and other bio-fuels [4] (four times as much as soya and ten times as much as corn[3]). Another important aspect of the use of jatropha as a bio-fuel is that it is virtually carbon neutral, absorbing as much carbon dioxide as that produced by its combustion. Also, the residue after the extraction of bio-fuel is a good source of bio-gas as well as biomass. It is also excellent in preventing soil erosion and the leaves it drops act as a soil enriching mulch [3], thereby enriching the soil on which it is grown. 

Also, the economics of using jatropha is also favorable and by some estimates[2] is about $43 per barrel, about half that of oil from corn, a third of that from rapeseed and very close to the current crude oil prices. Furthermore, the capital investment required for setting up its processing facilities is comparable to that of conventional refineries according to UOP [8]. Companies like BP and D1 oils (British bio-fuels company) have made substantial investments [5] in jatropha plantations in India, Southern Africa and South East Asia.

The fuel obtained from Jatropha is also suited for use as an aviation turbine fuel. Recently, Air New Zealand, in partnership with Boeing, UOP LLC and Rolls Royce, did a successful test flight[6] on a Boeing 747-400 passenger aircraft which had one of its four engines (of make Rolls Royce RB-211) powered by a 50-50 mix of jatropha oil and standard Jet Air 1 (standard jet) fuel. The following videos [7], [8], [9], [10], [11] describe this test flight and analyze the use of jatropha as a bio-fuel. The jatropha oil used for the test flight matched remarkably well with the standard aviation fuel with respect to its properties, especially those related to its performance as an aviation fuel [8], [9].

Thus, from the above discussion, it is clear that jatropha can address most of the problems associated with the use of bio-fuels like corn and is an ideal solution to meet the current and future energy shortfalls. However, it has its own share of problems, such as its toxicity due to which the government of Western Australia banned the cultivation of jatropha [3]. There is also the fear that in areas dependent on subsistence agriculture, it could force out food crops, thereby increasing the risk of famine [3]. There is also some uncertainty associated with its yields which could affect the economics of its use. Thus, further research into the development of new technologies to address these issues is needed before advocating its large scale use as a bio-fuel.


1) "Bio-fuels Are Indefensible in Our Hungry World". The Wall Street Journal (June 13, 2008)  

2) "Jatropha Plant Gains Steam In Global Race for Biofuels". The Wall Street Journal (August 24, 2007)

3) "Poison plant could help to cure the planet". The Times (July 28 2007)

4) "Mali’s Farmers Discover a Weed’s Potential Power", New York Times (September 9, 2007)

5) "Could jatropha be a biofuel panacea?" by Angela Hind, BBC Radio 4 (July 8, 2007)

6) "Air New Zealand Completes Test Flight with Jatropha Biofuel" Renewable Energy

7) "Air New Zealand Jatropha bio-fuel test flight"

8) "UOP presentation: Air New Zealand test flight".

9) "Rolls Royce presentation: Air New Zealand test flight".

10) "Boeing presentation: Air New Zealand test flight"

11) "Bio-fuels power New Zealand jet"

12) "Indian Railways’ Jatropha Biodiesel Gathers Steam: a Biofuels Digest special report" Bio-fuels digest (Sept 9, 2008)



Beal said...

As with all biofuels, the whole story of whether a particular feedstock will be will be capable of competing with petroleum fuels depends not only on the characteristics of the plant (or alga), but also on how much it costs to produce oil from it. It's really encouraging that Jatropha has so many advantages as a feedstock. It would be great if the airlines that are flying with fuel from Jatropha would disclose how much it cost to produce. Hopefully in time the gap between biofuel production and petroleum production (as low as $5-$15/bbl) will be narrowed.

Faiz said...

As far as bio fuels are considered, Algae seems to be more promising than jatropha. The toxicity of jatropha seeds raises an important issue of growing the plant. The productivity of the jatropho is low compared to other sources.The plant require two or three years to produce its first full fruit.In contrast to these, Algae is efficient in using sunlight . The growth rates are also much higher than any other plants.It can double its mass in every 24 hours.An interesting study has been done by Dr webber, David Wogan and others and the article "Algae: pond powered biofuels" is posted in blackboard.
Considering all the advantages over other biofuels,i think Algae should be called as a biofuel panacea.