The Diesel Tree

Naturally, something like a “diesel tree” is going to catch my attention. (The scientific name for the tree, as best as I can ascertain, is Copaifera langsdorfii, and is native to South America). I have been intrigued by this plant since I first heard about it, but haven’t run across a wealth of information. Thanks to Bob Rohantensky for bringing the following story out of Australia to my attention:

Qld farmers invest in diesel-producing trees

Farmers in North Queensland are doing their bit to be environmentally friendly by investing in a tree that produces diesel.

Over 20,000 trees have been sold to farmers in the tropics by the man who introduced the diesel tree from Brazil.

The tree produces an oil that can be extracted, filtered and used to power vehicles and farm machinery.

It is estimated a one-hectare crop could produce enough fuel for an average-sized family farm.

That’s promising if true. Of course questions are going to abound. Here are some of the preemptive answers from the article:

Mr Jubow says one hectare can produce around 12,000 litres of fuel per year.

“Last year we sold around about 20,000 of these trees. This year we’ll sell probably similar figures, but we could sell more except that we can’t get enough seed out of Brazil,” he said.

He says the trees need a lot of water to grow.

So, there’s the yield (at least one man’s opinion of yield) and the fact that they take a lot of water. So, not a good option for areas that don’t receive a lot of rainfall.

“There is a world-wide database on plant species that have been known to become pests. This plant is not on that list.”

For reference, Australia has placed jatropha on its invasive species list.

He says farmers who want to grow the trees need to know what they are doing.

“It is a very difficult tree to grow from the point of view of a nurseryman like myself – it is not something where an amateur could just grab a handful of seeds and go and grow them,” he said.

“It is not that simple. They are a very difficult seed to germinate.”

So the average person is unlikely to grow and produce their own diesel. Of course the average person doesn’t do this now, so that’s not necessarily a problem.

So, what do you do when the tree has reached the end of its life?

“Not only that, when the tree reaches its use-by date, you’ve got plantation-grown timber which is a very high-grade timber that is suitable for cabinet-making. It is a very ornamental timber.

“You are still keeping it out of the CO2 system by harvesting the timber and milling it and putting it into high-quality furniture.

That all sounds quite interesting. I wonder what the range of the tree is? The biggest disadvantage, though, is that it requires the kind of long-range energy planning that society has been so poor at:

“If I’m lucky enough to live that long enough – I’m 64 now – it is going to take about 15 to 20 years before they are big enough to harvest the oil so that I can use them in a vehicle,” he said.

We can’t even plan 5 years ahead, so it is going to take some real long-term thinkers with a lot of patience to get this idea going.

What are some other options? I think soybean, rapeseed, and palm oil are all out because of land usage issues, and competition with food. What is needed is a high oil producing crop that can be grown on marginal land. Of course that’s what they say about jatropha.

Unfortunately, jatropha seems to have been exaggerated. When I went to India, everyone had heard of it, but nobody knew where any was actually being grown. So there has been a nagging concern in that back of my mind that some other plants mentioned as potential options – Chinese tallow, for instance – may also have had their potential exaggerated. I want to know what’s likely, not some best case scenario.

23 thoughts on “The Diesel Tree”

  1. Check out d1 Oils in Britain. They seem to have the most ambitious plans for Jatropha of anyone I’ve seen.

    I can’t speak for their prospects of success, though. Only their ambition.

  2. What is needed is a high oil producing crop that can be grown on marginal land.

    Have you written off algeal biodiesel?

  3. You are right, it’s difficult to attract interest from people in ideas that don’t have immediate gratification or get-rich-quick potential, even if they are very good ideas in the long term.

    It’s funny how dumb we can be as a society. In the pre-industrialized age, everything was built to outlast the builder and society was relatively sustainable.

    In the current age, everything is throw-away and ideas like ground source heat pumps haven’t really taken off, even though they are good energy saving ideas. When people look at spending $10k on a NG furnace and electric AC versus $20k for a ground source system, they think “I might not live in this house long enough to see the ROI, so I’ll go with the cheaper capital investment and ignore the energy input”. Almost everyone I know that have built new homes lately justified a 50″ HDTV and a whirlpool tub, but no one I know justified a ground source heat pump and went with an NG furnace.

    My SHPEGS project suffers the same problem. A higher capital investment for an efficient base-load solar generation system that would have a lower peak output/$ is in the future. The CSP power plants being built now are going for peak load generation and energy storage is either not implemented at all or a small part of the design consideration. This is understandable until concentrated solar becomes more than a novelty on the grid and a cloudy day makes the grid unstable. We learn slow.

  4. In the american midwest, the ecology used to be dominated by an oak hazel savannah. There is a hybrid hazelnut strain that is apparently high yielding

    So why not mimick the ecosystem that is already adapted to the area to obtain both biofuels and food? When seen from a net energy perspective this may provide the best yields as well as addressing a whole host of ecological concerns current moncropping produces.

  5. My bad.

    I’m the guy who put that Chinese Tallow study on Wikipedia.

    To be clear, I wasn’t suggesting that Chinese tallow isn’t a good option. It might be. It’s just one of those that’s in the unknown category for me.

  6. In response to Doug:

    I have been researching algae for a couple of years now.

    Algae-derived biofuels are certainly in development, the sector saw billions in investment last year and is looking to grow even more. And it’s certainly not just biodiesel either — the biomass can be fermented for ethanol, digested for methane, made into high-quality animal feed, and/or put directly into refineries a la “renewable diesel”. The good thing about algae is that, unlike trees, once you have a good process the algae get going in a matter of hours, not years.

    That said, biofuel algaculture (which must be both ultra-low-cost and ultra-high-productivity to compete) is a very new field, with a lot of challenges that will probably take years to sort out. In addition to very high capital costs, even for open ponds, there are the important limitations, though, of water, abundant sunshine, flat land, CO2 source, and fertilization — all must come together with the right species to make it work. This limits how much area algae can be grown on, unless someone can figure out how to grow and harvest it profitably from the ocean (the iron fertilization folks are working on that.)

    Without even meaning to we are growing vast amounts of algae in our estuaries, rivers, and lakes.
    (There’s even a company that plans to harvest these blooms for fuel — Blue Marble.) Clearly, the resources are there. We are still in the very early years of algae. Enormous potential for the companies that have foresight and staying power. Just don’t think that you’ll be driving your phytoplankton-powered Escalade into the next century; algae is not going to solve peak oil. It will be several years at least before algae can even break 1% of our fuel use, if ever.

  7. On the hazelnut links, that’s one of the more interesting things I have read lately. I don’t see an oil yield given, though. Any idea on what that might be?

  8. Have you written off algeal biodiesel?

    No, it’s just too difficult any more to sort the wheat from the chaff. 90% of what I read about algal biodiesel lately is exaggerated. I still see a lot of claims that amount to more yield thah the theoretical solar insolation can even produce.

    Plus, you see things like “algae typically contains 50% oil.” I just read that a couple of days ago in a CNN story. It isn’t true. They can be made to have high oil concentration by starving them. Of course that brings growth to a halt.

    Just a lot of stuff like that has jaded my view of algal biodiesel.

  9. Gasoline bush

    Had completely forgotten about this until I saw the headline of this blog – “Diesel Tree”

    When I was a kid growing up in the Midwest 50 years ago, one of my Dad’s friends had a bush growing in his yard he called a “gasoline bush.” Whatever it was, if you brushed up against it with your bare skin it gave you a rash and did smell sort of like gasoline.

    Sometimes when we visited them, he would take a leaf from the bush and hold a match to it and it would burst into flames.

    I have no idea what the scientific name of that bush might have been.

    Does this ring a bell with anyone?

  10. Jatropha, chinese tallow, and now diesel trees…jatropha is supposed to yield 2000-4000 liters per hectare, much less than diesel trees…but more quickly, maybe is just a few years…China is planting multiple million hectare plantations in Indonesia (dougm: the chinese plantations dwarf d1).

    India, being India, is talking about jatropha, blah, blah, blah…..

    The fact that the diesel trees take a lot of water means probably they cannot be grown on marginal land….marginal usually means dry…..

    By the way, if Wikipedia is right, diesel trees could be much more prolific than indicated by RR: Assume planting the trees at three meters apart, you should get about 1,000 trees per hectare…at 30 litres per tree, that is 30,000 litres per year per hectare….

    assuming 50 cents per litre, obviously, a very good crop…..

    Can’t wait to plant some in Thailand…..

  11. Assume planting the trees at three meters apart, you should get about 1,000 trees per hectare…

    Three meter spacing sounds too tight. These trees grow 12 meters tall. One source I read said 100 trees per acre, which is a bit over 6 meter spacing and at the 50 liters/tree from one study yields the 12,000 liters per hectare quoted in the article.

  12. doggy-

    maybe you are right, but we plant eucalyptus at three meters, and it grows to the sky….12 meters tall is sort of s hrimpy tree….only 36 feet….I suppose i depends on crwn and trunk….has anybody ever planted this tree for fuel?

    woud be great to know…

    monocropping often breeds probelms…pests etc….

  13. By the way, the diesel tree is reportedly a permanently flowering tree (like eucalyptus), good for honey production. Therefore, one could plant the trees, and also bring on bees, in a climate such as Brazil or Thailand. The long wait for oil might still dissuade real investment, but is something to think about.

  14. Robert Rapier said…
    On the hazelnut links, that’s one of the more interesting things I have read lately. I don’t see an oil yield given, though. Any idea on what that might be?

    Yields similiar to soybean are claimed, so 40bu/ac (2400lb/acre) or so. As with many numbers on the internets today, there is no clear differentiation between terms, so it’s not clear if that’s dry nutmeat or whole nut with shell. Assuming shelled nuts, at 2,000lb/acre, 60% oil content and 7.5lb/gallon, a yield of 160 gallons would be had which is obviously rather high. My guess the actual numbers will be around the 50-60 gallon/acre mark. To the extent shells are a large part of the yield, they would make a fine cellulosic feedstock for on-farm gasification such as the EPRIDA charcoal process. Also included should be the wood harvest from short rotation coppicing of the bushes.

    Contacting them directly would likely seem profitable considering your writing on biofuels.

  15. 12,000 liter/ha.year, or to convert to ancient units, 1,300 gal/acre.year sounds impressive. That’s a lot better than the 50-60 gallon/acre.year for soybeans mentioned above. Especially if this “diesel” can be used without further modification.

    On to the factor that will determine whether this works or not: @ $4/gal, the yield converts to ~$5,000/acre.year. Bob, how does that compare to the crops you grow (before and after the recent price increases, if you don’t mind)?

  16. On-the-farm production also has penny-saved profits.

    Liquid fuels delivered to bumfrak country farms might cost around the same US$ (to use ancient units, Ha!) but in reality they’re heavily subsidized price averages. It’s always more costly to deliver a gallon of diesel 1000 miles to a rural location than 100 miles to a coastal city.

  17. Optimist:

    Where our farm is, there is around 120 frost free days on most years and almost all of the land is non-irrigated. That is enough for most cereals and oilseeds like Canola (rapeseed) and flax, but most of these ideas require much higher rainfall and warmer climates. We can grow garden corn, but the season isn’t long enough (or wet enough) to grow corn for feed.

    Hard Red Spring Wheat (milling wheat) is required to be sold through the Canadian Wheat Board. The farmer gets an initial payment on delivery and a final payment after the grain is marketed. The payment schedule is here High protein 1 wheat had an initial payment last fall of $172/tonne($4.68/bu) and a final payment this spring that made the total $284($7.75/bu).

    An average wheat crop is around 40bu/acre and up to 60bu/acre. That would be in the $200-$450/acre range.

    Canola is spotting at $625/tonne($11.60/bu) and the yields can be in the 30-40bu/acre range. That puts the gross in the $350-$550/acre range. Due to disease and weed problems, you have to grow Canola in a rotation.

    The inputs are higher for oilseeds, but the straight seed,fertilizer and pesticide are going to be in the $200/acre range.

    Now.. If you are farming a couple of thousand acres, you’ll need $300,000 for a tractor and seeder, $250,000 for a high clearance sprayer, $300,000 for harvester, and another $400,000 for grain storage and misc. equipment.

    Again, I am not actively farming, the family farm is leased out.

  18. rum doodle asked about the gasoline bush. I remember reading about these in Sunday school. I think Moses had one. The most interesting thing that I remember is that they sometimes talk.

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