Thursday, February 28, 2008

Jatropha - a Better Biofuel Option?

While many write of doom and gloom about biofuel crops, and that they are actually negative in terms of carbon balance [ see post below], interest is growing [pardon the pun] in jatropha, as a oil source and biofuel.

Jatropha is NOT a food crop, so it is somewhat different to many other options. In fact more of a weed and potential medicinal species in many tropical countries.

The Indian government has been pushing to increase the area of this species, with a focus on small, village level developments, and local processing using modest presssing or extraction equipment. That is probably a great thing, eliminating the need for cash outlays to purchase expensive imported diesel. The jatropha oil, often with minimum further processing can be used in small diesel engines, for lighting, electricity, small workshop and industrial power and machinery operation.

Others are pushing the use on better land, mainly in Africa, and to a lesser extent in India. Sometimes this land is currently idle or damaged in some way eg landmines and in these cases a larger agro-industrial approach is being developed. In Africa, in Mali, a project has been in various phases since around 1993, with generally good results. And the Indian scientists have been developing superior genetic materials with superior establishment and performance.

In Australia jatropha has a stigma as a weed, and development will be, and is, quite muted. Are we missing out on this apparent growth and development? Maybe not, as the Australian owned biofuels plant in Singapore has signed up to buy jatropha oil as a biofuel feedstock.

Will we see weed fueled buses in Darwin?

There are some excellent online resources. - a bit dated but ok for a start point

Like all energy crop projects over the past 25 - 30 years there is a lot of hype with some substance. But with oil now hovering around $100 US per barrel, has the time come to seriously push harder for use of biofuel options, especially those capable of being grown in marginal areas where food crops are not possible?

BUT....jatropha seems to have a significant drawback that is rarely discussed. Seed harvest currently seems to rely on cheap highly intensive labour. Hardly a good option for the industrialised countries. However, one item in abundance in many developing regions IS the supply of labour. Maybe, just maybe, it will be hand harvested while superior semi- mechanised options are developed. They will be needed if it is to expand.

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