The Potential of Jatropha

The previous post provided an introduction to Jatropha curcas, a tropical, oil-producing shrub. In this essay I want to get into why I believe there is great potential for jatropha to make an impact on the world’s energy supply. I will also explain the hurdles that need to be overcome.

Jatropha Curcas in India (Photo courtesy of Tree Oils India Limited.)

The Potential

Jatropha has many qualities that make it an attractive biofuel option. One, it is tolerant of dry conditions and marginal soils. This is a big plus, because it opens up areas for cultivation that would otherwise be unsuitable. The type of land with great potential is land that is being degraded, or turned into desert. Desertification is a significant problem worldwide, and occurs when dry land is overexploited. Think of the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s and you start to get a picture of how desertification impacts and threatens lives.

There are techniques for combating desertification. Plants that can grow on dry, marginal land have the potential to start providing a matrix for the soil to prevent the soil from being eroded by the wind. There are a number of candidate plants that can be used to combat desertification. However, there has to be adequate incentive to grow plants for combating desertification. I suppose the ideal plant would be one that can supply food while at the same time rehabilitating marginal soil. I am unaware of candidate plants in that category, but I presume some exist. A close second, however, would be a plant that can provide a quality fuel – and thus a cash crop – on marginal soil. Jatropha curcas is such a plant.

Comparison with Palm Oil

Where can jatropha be used in such a role? Have a look at the graphic below:

It is true that the African Oil Palm, from which palm oil is derived, is a much more prolific producer of oil than is jatropha. In fact, palm oil yields – as high as 5 metric tons per hectare – places the African Oil Palm as the world’s most productive lipid crop. But there are significant disadvantages/risks that go along with palm oil. First is the fact that the range of the African Oil Palm is a narrow band close to the equator (see the graphic above). While this is fine for countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand – where it has provided a valuable cash crop for farmers – it means that India and most of Africa is unsuitable for cultivation.

Of a more serious nature is that expansion of oil palm plantations – driven by biofuel mandates in Western countries – has led to a dramatic expansion in many tropical countries around the equator. In certain locations, expansion of oil palm cultivation has resulted in serious environmental damage as rain forest has been cleared to make room for new oil palm plantations. Deforestation in some countries has been severe, which negatively impacts sustainability criteria, because these tropical forests absorb carbon dioxide and help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Destruction of peat land in Indonesia for oil palm plantations has reportedly caused the country to become the world’s third highest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Because the range of jatropha is much greater, there is substantial potential to alleviate poverty throughout Africa, India, and many poor countries by providing a valuable cash crop for farmers. Further, it is unlikely to contribute to deforestation as more productive oil producers provide greater incentive to go that route. (Note: While the range is clearer greater than for palm oil, native jatropha is not frost resistant, which means the range shown in the figure above is overstated. The graphic indicates that jatropha could be grown in the Dallas area, and we certainly get hard freezes and frost here.)

Reality Check

The essay up until now may make jatropha sound like a real silver bullet for addressing fossil fuel dependence. Alas, there are no silver bullets. And in fact, the hype for jatropha has gotten out of hand. As I noted in the essay describing my trip to India, I found the present situation with jatropha to have been overhyped.

Jatropha has negatives just like every other energy source. First, it is toxic to humans and livestock. As pointed out in the previous essay, the Western Australian government banned jatropha as an undesirable, invasive species in 2006. Second, because it has not been domesticated, yields are highly variable and the fruits ripen over a broad time range. Third, it is labor intensive to gather the fruits and extract the oil. Finally, while it can be grown on marginal land, there has to be a logistical infrastructure in place to economically get it to the market. Much of the world’s marginal land lacks such an infrastucture. For instance, when I was in India last year, I saw great swaths of borderline desert land that might be used to grow jatropha. The problem is that it was all remote, with no infrastructure.

The answer to many of these concerns potentially lies in the fact that jatropha is still a wild plant. Selective breeding and/or genetic engineering likely have great potential to address many of these issues. Because the world is just now beginning to seriously experiment with jatropha, there is naturally a learning curve to climb. It may turn out that some of the issues are indeed insoluble, but I wouldn’t bet on it. What is needed is a serious, dedicated investigation into the genetics of jatropha, in conjunction with a major plant-breeding effort. We need some modern-day Luther Burbanks working on this problem. By doing so, jatropha may one day live up to the hype.

Additional Resources

There are numerous jatropha resources out there. Here is a sampling.

The Jatropha System

The site is quite a rich source of jatropha information, and if you are interested I would encourage you to explore it. It is devoted to the concept of providing renewable energy while creating new opportunities for farmers in poor nations

Jatropha Comes to Florida (3 minute video from Time Magazine)

Jatropha Potential for Haiti

Chhattisgarh plants 100 million jatropha saplings in 3 yrs

Mali’s Farmers Discover a Weed’s Potential Power

Toxic jatropha not magic biofuel crop, experts warn

Yield Per Hectare of Various Lipid Producers

UP to cultivate Jatropha for bio-diesel production

10 thoughts on “The Potential of Jatropha”

  1. The Ford Fusion Hybrid is spanking the competition in head to head tests. Car and Driver calls it a game changer. USA Today calls it the best hybrid yet,saying the system is so well integrated,you have to look at the $107,000 Lexus to come close.

  2. Maury, I am writing a story on that right now. I fly to Europe tomorrow, but plan to have an electric car/hybrid update in the queue to automatically post on Monday evening or Tuesday morning. I saw the results of the new Fusion, and was going to include that in the story.

    First, I am trying to figure out if it makes sense to go ahead and order one while I can still get a tax credit.


  3. Maybe you can order a bunch and sell your place on the list to people who weren’t as quick-footed Robert. Sort of like Prius buyers that flip their long awaited hybrids for a profit…with a twist. Half a tax credit is better than none at all.

  4. RR-
    New hybrids of oil palm are able to grow at greater distances from the equator. I have corresponded with Univanich, a Thai oil palm co. with extensive test field and labs etc. (They are publicly held, BTW, and pay a 12 percent dividend. They also burn palm waste to generate power, or crush it into MDF!) Palms are now being grown into central Thailand nowadays, but your map would suggest only the southern peninsula. From what I gather from Univanich, you could grow oil recent hybrid palms in Cuba, and possibly the southern tip of Florida.
    Additionally, there are non-toxic species of jatropha.
    I hope jatropha proves out. But palm oil is already a profitable crop, and getting more so as yields rise. It is profitable as vegetable oil, and in crude oil price spikes becomes very profitable as diesel. Future hybrids promise radically higher yields. Unlike corn, we are young at this game, with oil palms.
    I share the concerns about environmental degradation and oil palms. The solution is not turn our back on oil palms, but widen planting worldwide, and protect those areas worth protecting.
    I hope Africa embraces the oil palm. They only need political stability. Inevitably, Brazil will embrace the oil palm. If oil prices spike again, then it is only a matter of time.
    Maury-That is great news about the Ford Fusion. Everybody is saying it is a great car. The LA Times reviewer, who will rap a car hard if need be, just gave a thumb’s up to three Ford cars — the F-150, the Mustang and the Fusion.
    Evidently Ford tried the novel approach (in Detroit) of concentrating on engineering to make a better car to try to boost sales.
    Ford might make a great stock to own.
    In Fusion test drives, the LA Times reviewer obtained mpgs in the 50s by using a light foot, and staying under 47 mph.
    This is yet another reason why doomsterism is a sickness, not an insight. In the brief window of higher oil prices, Ford came up with a Fusion. What’s ahead in 10 years? 65 mpg in a comfortable sedan? Unlimited mpg if you drive less than 60-80 miles between charges?
    It is happening. Oil is going the way of the mimeograph. Happily so, I say. Goodbye smog, noise.
    We can produce electricity by nuke, wind, solar, coal, gas, oil, hydro, geothermal, and effectively through conservation.
    Frankly, once this economic mess is fixed (which may take a few years) I see a better world than ever before.

  5. Love your optimism Benny. But,you have to know people won’t adopt PHEV’s or use alternatives with $10 oil. What they’ll adopt with cheap oil is Hummers the size of RV’s. And Congress will widen highways to accomodate them,LOL. Sheeple will add a spoiler and sunroof because they like the looks,but won’t go hybrid if the “payback” takes too long. Sorry Benny,but you can’t have it both ways. We can have cheap oil,or we can have alternatives. We can’t have both. Human nature won’t allow it.

  6. Maury and Robert – I have been really critical of hybrid vehicles going on a decade. Since the Honda Insight was introduced I’ve kept a spreadsheet that figures the difference in purchase price and operational costs between conventional and hybrid vehicles. In my opinion, every hybrid intrdouced gave a negative or at best a mildly positive return on investment. Until now. The Fusion returns a respectible 7% at the MSRP sticker price difference of about $6,300. If you can get one with incentives from Ford and the tax credit it pushes the return over 10%.

    I got to sit in the Fusion hybrid a couple of weeks ago at the Houston auto show. It isn’t just one technology, but a number of innovations that work together extremely well. We will see how the production version of this car turns out, but this is the first hybrid vehicle I would even consider buying.

  7. RR – Good article. Jatropha for the US is a non-starter. I don’t see much enthusiasm for a poisonious, non-native, invasive species that requires cheap labor to harvest.

    Now for countries like Haiti, the Domincan Republic, and a number of countries in the Carribean, this could be an absolute boon. US energy policy and high tariffs on sugar and ethanol have destroyed the economies of the Carribean. Fuel is expensive and unreliable. A locally produced and exported fuel crop could greatly help economic basket cases like Haiti.

  8. King-
    Great to hear that you like the Fusion. I keep hearing positive reports.
    See King’s post. King, our own skeptical, gimlet-eyed King, is considering a hybrid.
    Actually, although I anticipate $10 oil, it won’t last. There will be another price spike. When? Five years? 10 years? Who knows?
    My point is that scarce crude oil is not a civilization-doomer. Quite the contrary. We will develop better machines, alternative fuels. I expect higher living standards and cleaner air as a result. Good!
    But I am beginning to think $10 oil will be sooner, rather than later. Japan just reported fourth q. GDP off in deep double digits.
    I used to think global crude oil demand would sink by 10 percent in this contraction. Now, perhaps 15 percent is not too extreme.
    We are looking at 10-15 mbd excess supply, minus to 4-5 mbs OPEC says it will take off the market. Call it 8-12 mbd excess supply.
    By the end of 2009, you won’t be able to give away oil.

  9. Kind of surprised to hear jatropha discussed so favorably. Yield energy density per hectare is the key. Just as cane ethanol makes sense since it’s yield/ha is about 3x that of corn ethanol (+ all the baggasse to burn that further improves energy efficiency, palm diesel clearly has potential on yield side versus soy or rapeseed, but it makes no sense to clear SE Asia peat lands to grow the stuff, since CO2 balance is worse than fossil diesel. Agree that for 3rd world farmers, it may have applications for reducing poverty, and have seen several presentations on appications in Haiti that seem to show promise.

  10. Palm oil is not the answer for bio-diesel and rain forests, throughout the world are being destroyed because of the increase demand for palm oil and growing sugar cane for ethanol.

    Jatropha has its place in the bio-diesel race and time will tell how effective it will be. But India, even OPEC, is investing heavily in Jatropha.
    Please check out the Jatropha posts on Chemically Green,

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