I am one of those old fashioned people who believes that the internal combustion engine still has life in it, not necessarily with carbon-based fuels like petrol or diesel, but with bio-diesels from plants or waste products.
In several news items over the past few years I have spoken about the possible use of Jatropha as a source of bio-diesel and is actually the name of a range of plants – 175 of them. It is a native of Central America, however thanks to man, namely Portuguese sailors, it is now grown in India, Africa and Indonesia.
These countries have similar climates to the original area and the plants have thrived. The plants produce nuts that contain between 27 and 40% oil and can survive drought. This is important because it means that the plants will need little water to survive – although they do need lots of water to grow. They seem to need more water than corn, so they could be grown in areas where water can be collected in large quantities naturally. The plants also seem to have something in their oil that prevents insects from eating them, so again unlike other possible sources of fuel, they will survive when other plants get decimated by swarms of insects.
The other important feature of the Jatropha plants is that they are not eaten by humans – well you can eat the seeds but due to their toxicity, you may only do it once! It could be your last meal, so, that means that it doesn’t get dragged into the debate that corn suffers from: do you grow for food or fuel and if you grow too much, do you cause a drought that kills off the humans thus reducing the need for the oil for fuel. In fact some types of the plant have great names that highlight their toxicity: one plant is called Bellyache Bush, another is called Spicy Jatropha.
The genus that the researchers are targeting is the Jatropha Curcas. It has names like Barbados Nut, Physic Nut and Purging Nut and is a highly toxic version when consumed by a human – the name is a giveaway! It can be used in two ways:
1. The oils can be extracted from the nuts. This oil is of a high quality which means that the refining is reduced, thus making it cheaper to turn into a bio-diesel.
2. Secondly, the residue of the initial extraction process, known as press cake, can be then used as a bio-feedmass that can be burned by an electricity generation plant or turned into a fertiliser.
If the conditions are right then it is possible to grow four times as much Jatropha as soy beans in the same area. In fact it can produce ten times the amount of corn – bearing in mind that it needs a drink or two. Helius Energy, a British company, has been quoted as saying that they can get 2.7 tonnes of oil from one hectare and in the process four tonnes of biomass. Many other companies have gone down the path of extracting the oil for bio-diesel including Archer Daniels Midland who had a tie up with Daimler who were testing the fuels in their passenger cars. In Myanmar, or Burma, as it used to be known, the Government wants to replace the 40,000 barrels of fossil oil they import every day with locally produced Jatropha based fuels. This would save the Government a huge amount based on current oil prices.
The bio-fuels have already been tested for use in aircraft. Several years ago, Air New Zealand flew a Boeing 747 with one engine running a 50/50 blend with jet fuel. Continental and Japan Airlines have also tested the biofuel. It seems that India is also becoming a hub of growth for the plant based fuel. The railway system has already been running trains with a blended bio-fuel using Jatropha. So it is becoming clear that Jatropha will become one of many sources of bio-fuels in the coming years. My personal preference is to make bio-fuels from Algae because I don’t think that the world can sustain 7 billion people and the need to grow water hungry plants for fuel.