Jatropha may seem like the most sustainable option among bioenergy crops but has yet to prove its potential. Research on socioenomic and environmental impacts of large-scale cultivation needed as well as lifecycle analysis on energy and carbon emissions. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Jatropha curcas is a poisonous scrub weed of the euphorbia family originating in Central America. Among its chief selling point as a bioenergy crop is that it grows in marginal, eroded land, and is resistant to drought. So it is not expected to compete for land that could grow food, nor would it require a lot of water, or fertilizers and pesticides, unlike corn, oilseed rape, soybean, sunflower and other food crops diverted into biofuel production [1-3] (Biofuels for Oil Addicts, Biodiesel Boom in Europe? SiS 30; Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits, SiS 33), now generally acknowledged to be unsustainable, as exemplified in a recent Nature editorial . Jatropha gives much higher oil yields, and trumps the poor energy returns of those other crops, and being inedible, biodiesel made from jatropha does not increase the price of edible commodities. Jatropha also has advantages over the high-yielding sugarcane and oil palm, as it occupies marginal lands, instead of plantations established by destroying natural grasslands or cutting down forests, resulting in the net release of megatonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere [3, 5] (Biofuels Republic Brazil, SiS 33).
The former President of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam, is a strong advocate of jatropha biodiesel. In a speech in 2006, he said that out of the 60 million ha of wasteland available in India, over 30 million ha are suitable for jatropha cultivation .
Recently, the State Bank of India provided a further boost to the cultivation of jatropha by signing a Memorandum of Understanding with D1 Mohan to give loans totalling 1.3 billion rupees to local farmers in India, to be paid back with the money that D1 Mohan pays for the harvested jatropha seeds.
The Indian Railways have started to use jatropha oil blended with diesel to power its diesel engines with great success.
Many Indian states have already jumped onto the jatropha train, including Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Ahmednagar.
Jatropha has been held up as a reliable source of income for India’s poor rural farmers, providing energy self-sufficiency, while reducing fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions .
Several states have distributed plants free of charge to small farmers, encouraging private investment in jatropha plantations and setting up biodiesel processing plants. The Ministry of Rural Development, which is to coordinate the national mission on biofuel when it is approved, estimates that there are already between 500 000 to 600 000 ha of jatropha growing across India.
India is not alone. China claims to have 2 million ha of jatropha under cultivation, and announced plans to plant an additional 11 million across its southern states by 2010. Burma has plans to plant several million ha, and the Philippines, and several African countries have initiated large-scale plantations of their own. So far there are 200 000 ha of jatropha in Malawi and 15 000 ha in Zambia, almost all under a formal lease or agreements with the UK-based company D1-Oils .
There are many uncertainties over the potential of jatropha as a biodiesel crop. The plant has never been domesticated. Its yield is not predictable, the conditions for optimum growth is not well defined, and the potential impacts of large-scale cultivation not known . Pushpito Ghosh has been working on the plant for a decade and now directs the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI) in Bhavnagar; he fears that a premature push to cultivate jatropha could lead to “very unproductive agriculture”.
Some years back, the United Nations Development Programme had funded exploratory plantings of jatropha on degraded land. Although the plants managed to grow, the yields of oil seeds were a far cry from the widely publicised figure of 1 300 litres of oil per ha.
Nevertheless, a consortium including the automobile company DaimlerChrysler, the German Investment and Development Company in Cologne, India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and the University of Hohenheim funded Ghosh’s team in 2003 to develop the transesterification process needed to turn jatropha oil into biodiesel (see ).
The jatropha biodiesel Ghosh’s team made is indeed of good quality, sufficient to satisfy European standards and outperforming biodiesel from rapeseed, sunflower and soybean.
Ghosh’s vision, and part of CSMCRI’s mandate, was to make the transesterification process affordable for use in villages; nearly 80 000 of India’s 600 000 villages are currently without access to fuel or electricity. DaimlerChrysler, on the other hand, announced it was to take two of its Mercedes C-Class cars on a 6 000 kilometre road-test across India using Ghosh’s biodiesel.
Ghosh’s team soon produced a transesterification unit capable of producing 250 litres of biodiesel a day, enough for use in villages and small-scale industry. Throughout April and May 2004, DaimlerChrysler’s Mercedes ran entirely on jatropha biodiesel from this unit, and in the summer of 2005, the company had several automobile journalists take the cars on a high-altitude test in the Himalayas, including the Khardungla pass at 5 359 metres above sea level, one of the world’s highest motor-roads.
The state of Chhattisgarh has the most well-developed jatropha biodiesel programme in the country. It has given away 380 million jatropha seedlings to farmers, enough to cover 150 000 ha, and also provided 80 oil presses to various village governing bodies with guarantees to buy back jatropha seeds at 6.5 rupees (~US$0.16) a kilogram. Several local micro-refinery businesses have sprung up across the state to provide biodiesel for tractors, irrigation pumps, jeeps and village power generators.
The CSMRI has received an order from the Defence Research and Development Organisation of India’s Ministry of Defence for a refinery that would produce 1 000 litres a day, costing 14 million rupees to install. Each litre of biodiesel will would have a net production cost of 26 rupees if the seedpods are bought at 6 rupees a kilo and every bit of the seed and seed pod is turned into something valuable after oil is extracted; the seedcake into fertilizer and the seed husk into a high density brick for burning as fuel.
The widespread government support has attracted foreign investments. UK-based D1 Oils, the world’s largest commercial cultivator of jatropha, has around 80 000 hectares in Chhattisgarh and in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, with plans for an additional 350 000 ha over the next several years. The state government funds jatropha seeds and D1 Oils guarantees to buy the harvested seeds at the price prescribed by the state.
Most of the plantings in India are not sufficiently mature to reach maximum productivity. Ghosh is wary that jatropha is funded and subsidized too much before mass cultivation is fully understood, and is advising farmers to plant jatropha interspersed with their current crops rather than commit themselves fully to planting it as a cash crop. While India’s Planning Commission is projecting yields of 1 300 litres per ha, Ghosh estimates a more conservative half of that figure.
D1 Oils Indian operations is focussing on research on yield, and the company is testing a number of jatropha varieties to find which grows best in India’s varied climatic regions. But research remains fragmentary and uncoordinated.
Biodiesel entrepreneur Louis Strydom, in trying to establish a jatropha biodiesel plantation and refinery on a massive scale in Kenya finds that while subsistence biofuel production and refining as a supplemental crop by small farmers around the world is a viable economic model, large commercial scale production is quite a different matter . For one thing, the yields and multiple annual harvests of Jatropha have been exaggerated; they can only be achieved under optimum conditions of rainfall, soil quality, and applications of insecticides and fertilizers. Ghosh and others are right in recommending a cautious approach even in jatropha, the theoretically ideal bioenergy crop. Much needed is research on the ecological and socio-economic impacts of large-scale jatropha plantations and a proper lifecycle analysis of the energy and carbon dioxide emissions involved.
For other options on sustainable energy see ISIS report  (Which Energy?).
Article first published 15/10/07
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