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Former weed may fill world's fuel tanks

In the world's most arid agricultural environments, jatropha is emerging as an alternative to ethanol.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 2007


In an overgrown corner of Moolchand Sethia's plantation, runty and unloved, stands what could be the next revolution in the world's search for renewable fuel.

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From China to Brazil, countries have begun setting aside tens of thousands of acres for the cultivation of jatropha – a plant many experts say is the most promising source for biodiesel. At the same time, companies from Europe and India have begun buying up land throughout Africa to establish jatropha plantations.

As American farmers plan to plant the most corn since World War II to cash in on ethanol, which is added to gasoline, much of the rest of the world is turning to jatropha, which is used as a substitute for diesel fuel.

The two are not competitors, since neither can be used in the other type of fuel. But jatropha is fast emerging as a candidate for the ideal biofuel. It is grown in wastelands, needs relatively little care or refinement, and is inedible – meaning it will not take food from the poor for the gas tanks of the rich.

But Mr. Sethia's modest plantation is a reminder that jatropha has a long way to go. Although Sethia's home state of Chhattisgarh has been one of India's leading jatropha promoters, industries say it could be years before they begin production here. Until then, Sethia laments, the $1,500 he has invested in jatropha has been wasted.

Globally, experts worry that the story could be similar. Lured by jatropha's potential, nations and corporations have acted rashly, coming to the "idea that it is the final answer for many problems," says Kees Daey Ouwens of Fuels from Agriculture in Communal Technology (FACT) in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

It could be. But it is too early to tell. "Jatropha is very promising," he says. "But there is not enough information … to start on such large scales."

There is no estimate as to how much jatropha is being cultivated globally, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the trend is accelerating:

• The government-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) is planning to have 80,000 acres of jatropha in Sichuan Province alone by 2010.

• Renova Biodiesel of Brazil is expected to plant 60,000 acres of jatropha, and reports suggest that other oil companies are considering planting nearly 500,000 acres in the next four years.

• D1 Oils, a British company that is considered by many to be the leader in jatropha cultivation, has plantations from Swaziland to Indonesia, and hopes to nearly double its 385,000 acres of jatropha worldwide by the end of 2008.

• The Philippine National Oil Co. recently earmarked $14 million for jatropha planting and production, while Indonesia plans to set up 52 biodiesel plants across the country at a cost of $7.3 million.

The cause of the excitement is both environmental and economic. The European Union has mandated that by 2020 all cars must run on 20 percent biodiesel, which burns cleaner than fossil fuels. A 1998 study, jointly sponsored by the US Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture, concluded that biodiesel reduces net carbon-dioxide emissions by 78 percent compared with petroleum diesel.