04 May 2009: Report

Hailed as a Miracle Biofuel,
Jatropha Falls Short of Hype

The scrubby jatropha tree has been touted as a wonder biofuel with unlimited potential. But questions are now emerging as to whether widespread jatropha cultivation is really feasible or whether it will simply displace badly-needed food crops in the developing world.

by jon r. luoma

The widespread publicity surrounding a seeming wonder-plant called Jatropha curcas began in earnest in the mid-2000s. A good-news story, it went like this: In the mildly toxic, oval-shaped, oily seeds of this hardy, shrubby tree was a near-miraculous source of biofuel. Since jatropha could grow on arid, barren lands, cultivating it would avoid displacing food crops such as corn and soybeans — a major drawback of so-called first generation biofuels. The world’s thirst for combustible fuels could be slaked, according to the buzz surrounding jatropha, with energy harvested from wastelands rather than from fertile fields.

Native to Central America and well-adapted to the tropics and subtropics, jatropha seemed a boon for the very places with some of the highest rates of poverty and plenty of hot, dry lands: the global south, from Latin America to Africa to Asia. Not only was the cultivation of jatropha supposed to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere than it released, but the miracle tree could also stabilize and restore degraded soils. That’s surely why Scientific American in 2007 called jatropha “green gold in a shrub,” a plant that “seems to offer all the benefits of biofuels without the pitfalls.”

Fast forward a couple of years. By 2009, governments from China to Brazil, along with several major biofuel companies, had planted — or vowed to plant — millions of acres of jatropha. In India alone, the government has announced plans to subsidize an intensive program to plant jatropha for biofuels on 27 million acres of “wastelands” — an area roughly the size of Switzerland. And the jatropha push is on in other countries such as Myanmar, Malaysia, Malawi, and Brazil.

Despite all this, however, it’s not at all clear that jatropha will ever be the green gold it’s been cracked up to be. In fact, no one yet seems to know for sure if the kind of large-scale jatropha plantations that would make a real dent in world fuel demand can actually be productive, while also avoiding the problems associated with growing corn, sugar cane, and soybeans for biofuel.

Today, most jatropha grown for biofuels is cultivated on plots of less than 12 acres and is primarily used locally. A global biofuels market for jatropha
Jatropha
In India, the government will subsidize an intensive program to plant jatropha for biofuels on 27 million acres of “wastelands.”
is only just beginning to emerge. One of the handful of companies involved in large-scale jatropha production is D1 Oils, a U.K.-based biofuels technology company that says it already has more than a half-million acres under cultivation, much of it in India. A 2008 report by jatropha producers said that 242 cultivation projects existed globally, growing the tree on 2.2 million acres; by comparison, Brazil alone grows sugarcane for ethanol on 7.2 million acres of land.

A key issue surrounding jatropha is the productivity of the tree in the dry, degraded lands on which it is said to thrive. Rob Bailis, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, along with Yale Ph.D. candidate Jennifer Baka, recently launched the first detailed “life cycle” environment assessment of jatropha as a biofuel. Although their study is in its early stages, Bailis notes that it’s already clear that, while jatropha can indeed grow on lands with minimal water and poor nutrition, “if you plant trees in a marginal area, and all they do is just not die, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get a lot of oil from them.”

He says evidence suggests that the tree will grow far more productively on higher quality land with more rainfall or irrigation. Indeed, even executives at D1 Oils warn against overestimating jatropha’s potential to produce economically viable yields on severely degraded lands.

“If you grow jatropha in marginal conditions, you can expect marginal yields,” says Vincent Volckaert, the Africa regional director for D1.

And there’s the rub, says Bailis. “If you grow it in better agricultural conditions, all the alarm bells go off as you get into the same food-versus-fuel debate we’ve seen with [biofuel from] corn.”

Although it may still be early in the jatropha story, some of those alarm bells have already sounded.

Consider India’s great push to plant jatropha. According to the Indian environmental group, Navdanya, government foresters have drained rice paddies in order to plant jatropha in the poor and mostly tribal state of Chhattisgarh. As early as mid-2007, protests broke out in the mostly desert state of Rajasthan over a government scheme to reclassify village commons lands — widely used for grazing livestock — as “wastelands” targeted for biofuel production, primarily jatropha.

On Mindanao, the second-largest of the Philippine islands, protests erupted in late 2008, with indigenous leaders insisting that jatropha plantations had begun to displace needed crops of rice, corn, bananas, and root vegetables.

A striking symbol of jatropha’s pitfalls can be found in Myanmar, formerly Burma. Late in 2005, Myanmar’s military dictatorship — newly enamored with what’s been called “the biofuel tree ” — ordered all of that nation’s
For jatropha to reach wonder-plant status, it must be grown on a scale far beyond the village level.
states and other political divisions to plant about a half-million acres each. In a predominantly agrarian country where child malnutrition is rampant, entire plantations have sprung up where food crops once grew. Under the threat of imprisonment, households have been forced to buy seed and plant jatropha in backyard gardens. Human rights groups report that teachers and their pupils, along with medical and government workers, have all been pressed into service to plant jatropha.

Yet according to scattered stories that have leaked out of a country generally closed to the foreign news media, the same government that infamously bungled its response to a devastating May 2008 typhoon did not have the foresight to build adequate infrastructure to mill the jatropha seeds or process them into biofuel. The seeds — grown at the expense of food crops — were left to simply rot on the ground.

It’s not all bad news. In the West African nation of Mali, on the southern edge of the Sahara, jatropha had long been grown as a sort of living fence to keep wildlife from crops, and sometimes as a source of handmade soap. In recent years, often with the help of nonprofit groups like the Denmark-based charity Folkecenter, local jatropha processing mills have appeared in hundreds of villages, providing fuel for lamps, cookstoves, and generators. The biofuel is not only cheaper than conventional oil and diesel, but it is available during rainy seasons, when impassable roads can block conventional fuel delivery. Even the solid “press cake” left over after the oil is squeezed out of the seeds has value as either an organic fertilizer or, if processed to neutralize the natural toxicity, animal feed.

But for jatropha to reach wonder-plant status — to make even a meaningful dent in a world that presently consumes 80 million barrels of oil every day — the tree would have to be grown on a scale far beyond the village level. Jatropha's potential was recently underscored by highly publicized jet test flights using a mix of jatropha and other biofuels. Boeing reported that at altitudes where fuels must last hours at sub-zero temperatures, the jatropha/biofuel mix not only performed well, but actually had a higher freezing point than conventional jet fuel. Jatropha fuel also contains more energy per gallon, meaning less fuel weight has to be lifted off the ground. In March, Boeing officials told a Congressional hearing that they were “very confident” that jet fuels from plants such as jatropha could power their planes in a low-carbon future.

In an early 2008 test, Virgin Airlines flew a jet from London to Amsterdam powered with a dollop — about five percent — of a similar biofuel, this one
Science must sort out whether jatropha can be grown on a mass scale that makes it preferable to food-based biofuels.
made from coconut oil. Never mind that the British magazine, New Scientist, calculated that it could take 150,000 coconuts to fully power even that short flight. Virgin CEO Richard Branson suggested that jatropha grown on arid soils could be the ticket for a green-fueled aviation industry, whereupon New Scientist calculated that it would take land twice the size of France to grow enough jatropha to power the world’s jet fleet. (Dramatic boosts in yields could improve that equation.)

If jatropha is to be grown on an industrial scale, the plant will need to be tamed and cultivated, and its oil yields vastly enhanced through conventional plant breeding or genetic manipulation. A San Diego start-up company, SG Biofuels, says it has amassed the world’s most complete library of jatropha genetic material and, with a cadre of scientists on its staff, believes it is on the way to quadrupling oil yields from 200 gallons per acre to 800 gallons per acre. A comparable boost in yields came after rubber trees were domesticated.

Even if enterprises like SG and D1 Oils can push the genetic envelope enough to make jatropha profitable, will the world actually be able to benefit from growing and processing the plant on a large scale? The jury’s still out. Yale’s Bailis says his life-cycle study still hasn’t established that jatropha biofuel will ever be “carbon positive,” meaning that growing the plant absorbs more CO2 from the air than it releases. He says he suspects that it can be, but he also points out that if cultivating the plant means leveling forests or plowing up native vegetation, large volumes of carbon would be released, possibly canceling out any benefits.

Whether jatropha will turn out to be the wonder plant it was originally touted to be will depend a great deal on how and where it is grown — an issue that must be resolved by scientists, businesses, and governments. “Whether it turns out to be a positive or a negative is going to depend a great deal on how it’s addressed at the policy level,” Bailis says.

The best outcome might be to slow down the jatropha steamroller and let science sort out whether it can be grown on a mass scale in ways that make it preferable to food-based biofuels. If not, it may turn out that the world will still have to wait for a second generation of truly viable biofuels.

POSTED ON 04 May 2009 IN Climate Energy Energy Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Central & South America Europe North America 

COMMENTS


Band wagons are meant to be jumped upon. And don't put any stock in what Boeing says about biofuels. Boeing is a gargantuan bureaucracy, much like a small country. Managers are analogous to politicians inside of it. Their future depends on affordable sources of liquid fuels and they are smart enough to know that. You could have predicted that they would eventually join with other promoters of biofuels for profit.

Biofuels will never be cheap and the price of liquid fuels have nowhere to go but up. The airline industry is about to undergo a major contraction and biofuels cannot prevent that.
Posted by Russ Finley on 04 May 2009


Why does every fuel have to be the ONE that powers the entire world? Isn't it good enough to have a local crop that can power the local economy? Just because a rampant dictatorship has once again bungled a human drama, is no proof that jatropha curcas is bad. Until we start thinking about fueling ourselves locally, no one feedstock, petroleum included, can stand the test of time.
Posted by TB2 on 04 May 2009


It mystifies me that people are still chasing up blind alleys with tree crops for fuel, when humble algae have growth rates orders of magnitude faster than anything else on the planet and can produce up to 50 percent of their cell mass as selected high grade lipids. Jatropha typically produces up to 70 USgal/acre/year (can supposedly go as high as 1600) but is trivial compared to algae's 20,000 gal/ac/yr. And that is in open pond culture, with closed bioreactors allowing pure cultures, water conservation and total recycling the output can be much higher. Plus algae industrial plants can be located where there is not even marginal land for food production.

The worry is that it's only a small step to growing algae FOR food production.
Posted by Kiwiiano on 06 May 2009


With one billion people in the world underfed or starving the best idea might be to concentrate on food production for people rather than feeding aeroplanes and cars. Rather than save the world from an unproven CO2 theory for the future, the present needs of the worlds people I would have thought should come first.
Posted by Ron Shewan on 07 May 2009


It is true that Jatropha will be able to survive in any marginal land and high drought resistant as the wild species. It will be untrue that Jatropha will be productive in such marginal and drought conditions as the commercial crops.

For commercial plantation Jatropha demands a reasonable good piece of land and water either by irrigation or reasonable rainfed zone with the additional fertilization as the other general mono crop.

All the misleading(misguiding) in the cultivation to promote the poor people to plant Jatropha will be a disaster since the Jatropha will be vegetative but definitely not productive to generate enough seeds for oil at the economical viability level.

The more serious issue for the current situation will be the relatively very low productivity and unsecured (inconsistent) yield. No one can demonstrate any secured high yield with the hard fact of testimonial evidences.

This is why you can hear many million of hectares were planted but in fact you can see none of any captive managed plantation on this earth. D1-BP Fuel crops did announce their Jatropha crops for many years but in fact there are almost zero result.

No single drop of CJO could be generated out from the big talk and press released in the past many year. If it would be as good as the initial assumption and announcement by D1-BP many years ago.They must be now having the top success in Biofuel.

In fact D1-BP Fuel Crop is running with heavy lose without any light in the tunnel that their shiny start project of jatropha biofuel have been promoted and fund raising form time to time.

It will be a big sin if this inappropriate crop would be promoted for the poor to plant without the proper varieties (secured high yield) and proper cultivation methodologies. This is a economical suicide which will big a big damages to the poor.
Posted by Chumroen Benchavitvilai on 07 May 2009


A higher freezing point in jet fuel would not be beneficial. I assume a lower freezing point is meant.
Posted by Chris King on 09 May 2009


It is a sad story to hear that Philippines are crazily promoting the plantation of Jatropha while the country is the net importing food country.

Why the government does not promote the food crops to feed to people i/o promting the energy crop of jatropha with unproven testimony of the economical viability.

Feed the people with food crop before move further for energy crop.
Posted by chummy mah on 17 May 2009


No plants can satisfy all human needs; the value (economic, ecologic) to human of any one plant is directly related. For example, in tropical, sub-tropical and dry-hot valley areas, Jatropha has shown great ecological value in barren hills and marginal land improvements. Of course, people are currently more focus in Jatropha’s economic performance as bio-diesel. As you mentioned in your article, Jatropha’s development has come to a halt in some countries such as India, but we cannot say the industry has failed, because Jatropha’s cultivation and seed varieties have not matured. If best cultivation method and seed varieties (best method does not mean using large quantity of fertilizer and labor) are utilized, there certainty will be a complete different outcome. Using rice farming as an example, if rice is being planted on dry land with no maintenance, we can expect a very low or even no yield. Then should we give up planting rice, a major food source for human?

As we are considering the economic benefits of Jatropha as one of the major feedstock for bio-fuel, we should focus in the calculation of input and output factors, carry out proper cultivation management and developed superior varieties (in order to improve Jatropha’s value to human needs). We should not randomly select wild and short acclimatization raw materials and perform non-managed or minimal managed cultivations, and eventually come to the conclusion that Jatropha is not a valuable feedstock for bio-fuel.

At present most countries have established policy to prevent large scale Jatropha cultivation on arable land; this in turn shows that governments have policy towards land use for food and will not permit large scale planting of Jatropha as bio-fuel feedstock on arable land. Whether a piece of land is suitable for food agriculture is the result of tens and hundreds of years of experience and knowledge of local people. Farmers will not start cultivation on lands that are not currently used for agricultural purpose just because we start planting Jatropha. However if by planting Jatropha, using agriculture base cultivation methods, soil fertility is improved, after several years farmers may choose to start crop cultivation on these land, and thus Jatropha become benefits to the food productions.

Marginal land is an economic concept, it is not directly related to soil fertility and soil fertility is not the only factor affecting seed yield. In China, the quality of the soil is determined by soil fertility, soil fertility is set by national standards. They are determined according to soil environment condition, soil physical properties, soil nutrients, reserves targets, and the effective state of nutrients. Base on these criteria, soil fertility is divided into 3 levels: level I excellent, level II good and level III poor. From our experiments and research, we have proven that even if Jatropha is planted on level III soil, with properly cultivation methods, we can obtain a desirable yield (according to our research after 5 years seed yield can guarantee to 300kg – 500kg per Mu(15Mu = 1 hectare)), and obtain a high economic output to input level.

In addition, I would like to briefly touch upon the economic value in the cultivation of Jatropha, which for some organizations and companies are very important. Although seed yield and economic benefits are closely related, seed is only one of the economic values derived from Jatropha. We can obtain profits from seed harvest and turning them into bio-fuel, a well managed cultivation method and superior species can definite increase profit margin. Then there will be income from carbon trading when Jatropha are being planted on barren hills or wastelands and in some countries state incentives as well. Thirdly, we can utilize Jatropha leaves (natural shredding leaves) for drug production. Fourthly, seed shells can be used to produce active carbon. Fifthly, because Jatropha seed contain over 70% unsaturated fatty acid, seed oil residue makes good organic fertilizer. Sixthly, addition value added products derived from Jatropha, for example, glycerine and other oleochemicals.

With regard to Myanmar which we have visited a couple of times. The situation is different than what you have described. They also utilized marginal land to plant Jatropha. Something worth mentioning is in some area in Myanmar; government has promoted the planting of Jatropha over poppy seeds, in order to reduce drug productions. The government even provides free seeds and fertilizers. Even in Myanmar, Jatropha companies will pay fair market price to local farmers and will not carry out force laboring.
Posted by Ben Sze on 29 May 2009


Comments have been closed on this feature.
jon r. luomaABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jon R. Luoma, a contributing editor at Audubon, has written about environmental and science topics for The New York Times, and for such magazines as National Geographic and Discover. His third book, The Hidden Forest: Biography of an Ecosystem, has been released in a new edition by Oregon State University Press. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he wrote about the promising state of solar power and new technologies to harness the power of the ocean.
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