Former weed may fill world's fuel tanks
In the world's most arid agricultural environments, jatropha is emerging as an alternative to ethanol.
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Meanwhile, Asian economies are desperately seeking natural resources to support their growth. India, for example, imports 70 percent of its fuel, and its planning commission has prioritized the study of domestically grown biofuels in an attempt to become more self-sufficient.Skip to next paragraph
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Jatropha is a natural answer. The leafy bush thrives in arid regions around the equator, has no use as food, and takes little refinement: a hydraulic press to squeeze the oil from the seeds, and a chemical solution to create and filter the fuel. When the necessary infrastructure is in place – sufficient farms, transport routes, and processing plants – jatropha oil could be no more expensive than regular diesel.
"In 10 years, the production prices will not be much different," says Mr. Daey Ouwens.
Along with several other states, Chhattisgarh has responded with massive planting campaigns and incentives for farmers, including 500 free saplings. Sethia received a $250 loan for planting jatropha, as well as a commendation from the state. The problem is, there's no market here in the Indian outback.
The state says it will buy the seeds, which then must be crushed to create the oil. But Sethia says he would need to take his harvest to the capital, which is a half-day drive, at least. The cost of getting them there would outstrip any possible profit.
Then there's the fact that jatropha needs more care than he had anticipated. He has let most of his crop fend for itself. After two years, the plants are knobby fingers less than a foot tall. A few plants, however, he planted in a ruddy dirt embankment near a seasonal pond and tended regularly. Their leafy branches arch higher than Sethia himself and are already yielding seeds.
Right now, he says, the economics don't work. "But if there is a [processing] plant nearby, farmers will grow it, because there is the assurance that they will be able to sell it," he says. As it is, he knows of only one other person in the district growing jatropha.
For their part, oil industries are interested in building processing plants. But it will be several years before there is a critical mass in Chhattisgarh – about 50,000 acres – to justify the costs. "That has to come up," says B. B. Choudhary of Indian Oil. "It has not yet."
Yet there is also a danger in industries pushing too fast, experts say. Jatropha cultivation is so new that scientists know little about it, such as ideal conditions for growth, susceptibility to disease, or expected yields per acre. Some critics even suggest that toxic strains of the plant can cause health problems for workers.
The Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi has set up plantations across India to study these issues for British Petroleum. In four years, all these knowledge gaps will be filled in, argues Alok Adholeya, who manages the program.
He advises farmers like Sethia to remain patient: "If they are patient enough, they will find some buyers very soon, because the message is getting out."