As President Bush delivered the State of the Union address this week, he opened the door to a new stage of energy diversification for the nation. Some of the answers may yet come from places he hasn't looked. In today's article, we'll look at the jatropha plant, and its use in the biodiesel industry.
The jatropha plant (known more commonly in English as physic nut) is abundant, if overlooked. Like so many of the world's plants, jatropha grows in the biologically diverse climates of Africa, southern North America, and the Caribbean. From its original location in the Caribbean islands, the European traders of the Age of Exploration fostered its propagation along their routes.
Though poisonous when eaten, the jatropha genus and its species hold immense potential for improving human life in this new age of biologically-derived fuel.
India, where the jatropha was introduced by Portuguese traders centuries ago, is now the world's hotbed for jatropha-based biodiesel. The weedy plant's potential for nuisance is matched only by its utility, as India's national rail operator has found.
The railroad between Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi is planted with jatropha along its course, and the locomotives running through the red-blossomed bushes are partly powered by the plant. Fifteen to twenty percent of the fuel used on the Mumbai-Delhi line is derived from jatropha extract, proving the usefulness of this obscure bush.
Jatropha Bellyaches and Biodiesel
In Australia, where it is considered a major weed, jatropha is called the "bellyache bush." While the eyes of the world have been primarily focused on corn and soy as feedstocks for biodiesel, these potential foodstuffs are less than optimal, precisely because they are edible.
The bulk of the ethanol produced in the United States today comes from corn. Cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from waste like corn stalks, would not bring about any net loss of food material, but the production methods in common practice (and which are gaining heavier lobbying weight by the day) are dependent on conversion of the nutrient-bearing food portion as well.
In Brazil, where sugar-based ethanol comprises at least 20% of gasoline mixtures and hydrous ethanol is sometimes used by itself, deforestation caused by over-cultivation has made ethanol as much of an enemy as a friend to some environmentalists. Though the green crowd would like to see the lower emissions that biofuels bring, they are hesitant to see any more of Brazil's biodiversity threatened by turning natural rainforests into sprawling fuel farms.
Therefore, jatropha is the perfect poison. As a drought-resistant, perennial scrub plant, its hardy nature favors planting it in hostile environments where not many nutritious plants could readily grow. On the same note, it takes very little water to stay healthy.
After three to five years for a shrub to truly take root, a physic plant will bear seeds for half a century.
The most popular peer of jatropha in terms of non-edible feedstocks is the North American native tall grass known as switchgrass. President Bush mentioned switchgrass in last year's State of the Union address for just the same reasons that jatropha is ideal: it doesn't need much fertilization or herbicide, and since it literally grows like a weed, the effort involved in its cultivation is largely confined to the harvesting process.
Investing in Jatropha
Where switchgrass could become an unlikely cash crop in the U.S., the developing world could make money from jatropha.
The Indian and Indonesian governments are both taking notice, and so are several African governments. By some estimates, half of the African continent's land is suitable for the plant to take root. The Indian Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) kicked off a decade-long program in 2006 to investigate jatropha's use in the biodiesel industry. But rapidly rising India and the rest of the world do not have that long to wait and see if jatropha is worth it.
As supplies become scarcer by the day and the climate change clock ticks away, any alternative is worth testing, whether it's from a source as sweet as sugar or as bitter as the bellyache bush.