We do love our wonder-crops. We want plants that yield large amounts of biofuel, and can do it on marginal soil. We want them to be drought resistant and require little fertilizer. And when one fails to deliver per the hype, we move right on to the next one without having learned the lessons of the last one.
Jatropha was a recent wonder crop that captured the world’s attention. It was drought tolerant and could in fact grow on marginal soil. It had lots of things seemingly in its favor. On the surface, it really appeared to have huge potential for helping to fill in for petroleum as fossil fuels depleted.
I had heard all the hype on jatropha, but my first indication that the hype had gotten way ahead of the truth was when someone contacted me a couple of years ago and asked if I could help them secure some jatropha oil. I figured it would be a simple matter, as jatropha was all over the news. BP and D1 Oils had just formed a partnership to grow jatropha for feeding into BP’s refineries. Clearly if big oil was getting into it, there had to be some substance there (that’s also what I have been hearing about Exxon’s venture into algae; that this proves algae is for real).
But I couldn’t find any commercial quantities for sale anywhere. It seemed very odd to me that a crop with this much seeming potential didn’t actually have any commercial operations to back up that hype. Further, on a trip to India in 2008 I asked numerous people about jatropha, and nobody could tell me who was actually growing any (even though I had heard that India was a hotbed of jatropha cultivation).
As I indicated in a recent essay, I am writing a book chapter right now on jatropha and algae, and I think I can shed a bit of light on what happened with jatropha. It is the same thing that happens with many of these wonder solutions. There are bits of truth to the story that get exaggerated, and the caveats get dropped along the way. For example, jatropha is drought tolerant, but it doesn’t do well in drought conditions. You can’t get good fruit yields unless you have adequate rainfall. Further, jatropha fruits pull nutrients out of the soil, so jatropha does require fertilizers.
But a bigger problem for jatropha is in harvesting. Jatropha is still basically a wild plant, and the fruits ripen at different times. This has made mechanization of harvesting impossible to date (a similar situation exists with coffee beans). A worker harvesting jatropha by hand can only pick about 5 kg of fruit an hour. The problem is that the 5 kg of fruit only contains about 70 cents worth of oil (valuing the oil at $80/bbl). So unless you are going to get people to pick the fruit for 10 cents an hour, the economics aren’t going to pencil out. (The seed cake is toxic, so the best value there may be to just recycle it back to the soil).
That isn’t the only problem, but it is the sort of issue that is often overlooked when these wonder-crops are hyped. People hand-wave those issues away and say “We’ll figure something out.” But after major investments in jatropha, the overlooked problems still haven’t been resolved. So the BP and D1 Oils deal fell apart, and now India’s jatropha effort is stalling:
Jatropha’s growing conditions proved to be more complex than originally thought. Jatropha requires close care. Chhattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Agency analyst Preeti Kaur noted that while initially specialists assumed that jatropha could flourish on wasteland without irrigation, it in fact requires moderate irrigation. As a result, nationwide investments in jatropha of more than $5 billion are at risk.
Kaur added, “The plans have almost failed and our investments are stuck due to the poor quality of jatropha seeds. Other than this, small land holdings are a major reason for the failure of jatropha plantations.”
Yields have been hyped to as much as 12 tons per hectare, but a grower in Madagascar reported that their yields were far lower:
“In reality, suggestions of seed yields of 8 tonnes per hectare and 30% oil content are extravagent in the extreme. We are growing Jatropha curcas commercially in Madagascar. We are seeing average oil contents in the range 25 – 27% of which 20 – 22% is recoverable by mechanical expression…
We are averaging about 60 pods per tree/ 300 kg per hectare from 5 year old trees this year. Yield from our 4 year old seedling trees was neglegible ( aprox 3.3 kg per hectare ) in 2007. We initially approached the production of Jatropha curcas with great enthusiasm but now have grave doubts as to the commercial viability of the exercise. Certainly, it is unrealistic to suggest tying up vast areas of African land for 4 non productive years and finish up with a crop that will eventually provide a maximum of 3 months productive work with very meager returns to a participating farmer. At least this is our opinion based on practical experience rather than media hype.”
But move over jatropha, because camelina is here to replace you as the new drought-tolerant wonder-crop:
An oilseed that can grow in arid spots could one day supply fuel for commercial and military aircraft, power Navy ships and give livestock an heart-healthy nutrient.
Camelina produces an oil that shows so much promise as an aviation biofuel that 14 major airlines have an agreement with a Seattle-based company to buy up to 750 million gallons of the fuel.
Moreover, studies conducted by researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Washington State University have shown camelina can be grown in arid, nonirrigated and marginal soils found in some parts of Eastern Washington.
Researchers have found that the oilseed tolerates cold, needs a minimal amount of water, grows to maturity rapidly, doesn’t require much fertilizer and works well as a rotational crop with wheat.
That sounds like a really familiar story. And it may turn out to be true. More likely, though, is that this is speculation based on limited experience growing camelina commercially. It may be like jatropha: It can grow in arid, nonirrigated soil. It just doesn’t grow well and you can’t get commercial yields under those sorts of conditions. But I think it would be prudent to approach camelina with a greater degree of skepticism than was applied to jatropha.
In the end, all these wonder-crop stories do is give the public a false sense of security over the energy picture. After all, what’s to worry about when we have jatropha, camelina, cellulosic ethanol, and algae all waiting in the wings to replace oil as it depletes?
Note: To be clear, I haven’t written off jatropha (or camelina). I continue to believe that it deserves research dollars and does have potential especially in tropical countries (as I indicated in a 2009 essay). This essay is just to illustrate that we often run far ahead of reality with some of these new energy crops. Jatropha may someday provide meaningful quantities of fuel. But that day is likely a decade or more away, and will require a dedicated research program.