Biofuels have been around for decades if not centuries as humans use waste to provide heat or to cook food. Waste cooking oil has been used for years as a diesel substitute and several companies in the US and Europe have specialised in converting diesel cars to use it.
In recent years biofuels have been associated with corn based ethanol that has not only taken away a staple food source but also water. To make ethanol from corn you need to use vast quantities of water. Neither commodity is abundant in the world and so Governments have been limiting the use of corn for fuel to ensure a ready supply of food for their citizens.
Now two non-food based plants are being investigated as a possible source of fuel for cars, trucks and aircraft: modified tobacco and jatropha (a plant I had never heard of before).
In South Africa, SAA the national airline has been working with farmers to grow a nicotine-less tobacco that produces seeds that can be refined into a fuel for jet engines. The plants are fast growing and the farmers can get two crops a year with another one for staple foods – the seeds of which have been bought by the profits from the tobacco harvests. SAA expects to use 500m litres a year by 2022 blended half ‘n’ half with “normal” fossil sourced jet fuel. Two good results come from this:
1. It helps the local farmers survive which ultimately helps the local communities.
2. It reduces the airline’s reliance on the global fuel market.
The waste from the refining process is also recycled as animal food.
The jatropha bush produces seeds that can also be used in a similar way to the tobacco plants. It is a vegetable that is toxic to humans but could be refined to produce oils. Researchers are testing the plant to see if this is going to be viable in large quanities. If it is, the world has two more choices that protects our food sources but gives us energy.
The only question I have is how much water and other energy sources are used in the refining process. Too much would make these plants unsuitable for oil production and give the world the same headache as we have with corn ethanol today.
The great news though is that there are teams out in the world testing and challenging the status quo – we will see the fruits (seeds or beans) of their labour over the next decade and we can be sure to see a battle between these fuels and electric cars.