29/10/2007 (International Herald Tribune), Singapore - Until recently, Jatropha Curcas, a tall bush with highly toxic fruit and bark, was mainly used as a hedge plant to keep livestock away from crops.
But amid soaring prices for traditional biofuel feedstock, including palm oil, the nuts from the perennial bush are now being eyed as a possible sustainable alternative throughout South and Southeast Asia.
Several governments in the region have announced plans for massive planting programs. The Indian government is targeting 13.5 million hectares, or 33.5 million acres, for jatropha cultivation by 2012; in the Philippines, a British firm, NRG Chemical Engineering, has set up a joint venture with the state-owned Philippine National Oil to construct a biodiesel refinery and two ethanol distilleries.
NRG Chemical says that it will invest $600 million in jatropha plantations that will cover over a million hectares, mainly on the islands of Palawan and Mindanao.
Even Myanmar is joining the fray, with the director general of Myanmar's energy planning department being quoted over the summer saying that the country hopes to have 2.8 million hectares of jatropha plantations by the end of next year. The country has already planted 650,000 hectares, according to news reports.
"It's one of the biofuel crops that offer a genuine hope of producing an environmentally neutral fuel," said Krystof Obidzinski, a research fellow at the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia. "Environmentally it's definitely better than palm oil because you can plant it on dry soil and barren areas and it will do well. But the problem is you need a vast area to produce a substantial amount of oil because the yield of jatropha oil per hectare is far, far, far smaller than the yield from palm oil."
There is no technical challenge in processing jatropha into biodiesel, said Graham Prince, a spokesman for D1 Oils, a British biodiesel producer. The real commercial challenge is to raise the yield.
Oil palm can yield as much as five metric tons of oil per hectare while, under the best conditions, uncultivated jatropha will yield on average only 1.7 tons, Prince said.
On the other hand, he said, "It's still better than rapeseed yields in Europe, at 1.5 tons per hectare and soy, which only yields 0.5 tons."
D1 says that it has identified a variety of the bush from West Africa that, under cultivated conditions, could yield up to 2.7 tons per hectare. "We are at the early stage of commercial development," Prince said. "The first mass multiplication of the seedlings of that higher-yielding variety is being developed now. They will be planted between now and end-2008 on about 50,000 hectares, mainly in northeast India."
The plants mature and start to fruit about two years after planting. D1 plans to harvest and crush the seeds locally and transport the oil abroad.
One of the big advantages of jatropha is that it grows in semi-arid conditions and can be planted on otherwise unproductive land.
"As such, it's an additional revenue for farmers," said Peter Cheng, chief executive of Van Der Horst Biodiesel, a Singapore company that has invested in small pilot plantations of 1,000 hectares or less in China and Cambodia. Van der Horst is now negotiating for an additional 20,000 hectares in Cambodia, 10,000 hectares in Vietnam and 25,000 hectares on the Indonesian island of Seram. The company's business plan calls for it to build a biodiesel plant in Singapore, with a 200,000-ton annual production capacity, to process jatropha from its plantations in the region.
For all the buzz around the seeds, Prince warns that governments need to proceed cautiously. "You've got to make sure you're planting this in the right area," he said.
"There is no point of having a jatropha bonanza if people start chopping down rainforest to plant, or farmers plant it in areas that are too dry."
The bush needs between 600 milliliters, or 37 cubic inches, and 1,500 milliliters a year of rainfall - ideally 1,000 milliliters, he said. "If it's planted in areas that are too wet or too dry, they might not get any yield at all."
Another problem is that, like coffee, wild jatropha produces fruit and flowers simultaneously. Harvesting therefore needs to be done by hand, but large-scale plantations will ultimately require mechanization.
"We won't be able to develop mechanization until we've done sufficient breeding on jatropha to remove its characteristic of fruiting and flowering at the same time," Prince said.