Jatropha’s future for biofuels…the end or the beginning? Good question and coverage in Biofuels Digest!

After winning a small victory over the Germans during World War II, Winston Churchill said “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Today, Biofuels Digest asks is this the end of jatropha? Or is it just the beginning?

In Botswana, jatropha’s adventures are just beginning according to the Ministry of Minerals Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security’s advisor, Freddie Motlhatlhedi. He was referring to a joint research project done by Botswana and Japan that shows quite a bit of promise for commercial production of jatropha for biodiesel. The joint project was initially created in 2011 to scope out which types of indigenous plants had the highest levels of natural oils and performed the best for biofuel production.

The report estimates Botswana alone can produce 450 liters per hectare (almost 2.5 acres) and can get a decent price of around $1,000 per ton. The government plans on using the research to help increase small and medium scale jatropha plantations to increase biofuel production for the country and work on breeding of high yield, stress tolerant varieties. Their hope is that the jatropha will help the country’s farming sector economically either by selling the jatropha they grow to processors, or by using the oil on their own farms and homes as fuel. The government also plans to blend it and conduct on-road vehicles testing and evaluate its socio-economic and environmental impacts.

Considering jatropha seeds can have up to 40% oil, grow year round, are drought tolerant, can live in poor soil, and some high yielding varieties produce over 700 seeds, jatropha caught the attention of many investors, biofuel producers and countries, not just Botswana.

Jatropha Joys

Once touted as a miracle feedstock, some countries are head over heels that jatropha addresses the food vs. fuel issue – jatropha isn’t edible since it’s poisonous, and it can survive with little rain and poor soil conditions allowing it to grow on land that doesn’t compete with land for food.

Good news comes from Nigeria where oil trading company Taleveras Group teamed up with the Global Green Development Group to establish jatropha production throughout West Africa with an eye on processing the oil at a biorefinery in Mississippi, as reported in June in Biofuels Digest. The company is scoping out 15,000 ha in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia for the 70 million gallon per year project that is expected to cost up to $600 million. It plans for the project to be online in the next three years.

As reported in Biofuels Digest in March, Zimbabwe is looking to implement a 2% biodiesel blend by year’s end using fuel produced from jatropha. The country had looked to implement such a policy several years ago but the plans went by the wayside under a previous minister. Now the policy is back on the table along with returning to 15% ethanol blending and developing A1 jet fuel in an effort to reduce imports. Plans to produce energy by distilling coal is also being muted.

Some more good news for jatropha comes from Egypt. As reported in Biofuels Digest in May, following three years of R&D, researchers from the National Research Center’s Department of Chemical Engineering developed aviation fuel using a combination of used cooking oil and jatropha oil, though algal oils and palm oil have also been trialed in the mix. Using sewer water to irrigate the jatropha trees helps to keep the production costs down, which researchers said aren’t very high. The country set a mandate that 3% to 5% of aviation fuel should be biofuels by 2020.

Abandonment Issues

Like your weird Uncle Joe, jatropha has issues and not everybody loves it. Far from being the miracle feedstock that solves all our food vs. fuel debates, jatropha hasn’t seen success in some countries.

As reported in Biofuels Digest this February, in Rwanda, after four years of unsuccessful attempts to get it off the ground, the government is abandoning its $35 million biodiesel project. Poor science behind the feasibility studies that expected jatropha to be a key feedstock but later was determined to not be viable in the country’s climate is blamed for the project’s failure. The government tried to auction off equipment such as a biodiesel-fueled bus but no buyers were found. Potential use of the facility as an R&D site were also been floated but not decided upon.

Another one bites the dust in India. As reported in the Biofuels Digest in March, the Indian cabinet approved the closure of the two joint ventures set up in 2008 and 2009 with HPCL and Indian Oil with the Chhattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Agency to develop and commercialize jatropha-based biodiesel. The agency had provided waste land to grow the jatropha on but the crops had results that were not economically viable enough to continue, so in order to keep from continually losing more money, the JVs were liquidated.

Back to the continent of Africa, Mozambique gave up on jatropha too. As reported in the Biofuels Digest in April, the Mozambique government said forget about jatropha as a potential biodiesel feedstock as the economic viability of the program dwindled in line with falling fossil fuel prices. The program was first launched with $130 per barrel oil but with current levels, the project to develop commercial-scale jatropha production with the assistance of Brazilian international cooperation has fallen apart. In 2012, the government had planned to blend 3% biodiesel and 10% ethanol using local supplies.

The Bottom Line

So is it the beginning or the end for jatropha? Only time will tell for sure, but Biofuels Digest take is that it seems to largely depend on the willingness of investors and governments to push through for commercialization projects and for scientists to breed varieties and hybrids that increase seed yields and oil amounts to make it a successful feedstock for biofuels.

At the very least, it seems to be a great option for small farmers to grow as a cash crop or to fuel their own farms and homes. So we’ll keep our fingers crossed for Botswana and other countries who are trying to get jatropha to help them socio-economically and environmentally.

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