A plant that some have scorned as a predator might well turn out to be part of the answer to rising fuel bills for consumers.
Jatropha curcas, a poisonous, semi-evergreen shrub that can grow as high as 20 feet, produces seeds laden with oil that backers say is an ideal biofuel. One company that maintains 194,000 acres of the plant under cultivation in India is looking to expand farming, and fuel production, in the United States.
Mission NewEnergy, an Australian-based firm with operations in India and Europe and a recently opened branch in San Antonio, says it can deliver refined Jatropha oil at about $40 to $50 a barrel. The firm's U.S. entry also included listing its shares on Nasdaq, complementing its Australian Stock Exchange presence.
Mixed with traditional jet fuel, Jatropha oil already has been used on test flights by Continental Airlines, Air New Zealand and other carriers. Once approved for general use, Jatropha could help cut one of the aviation industry's highest costs.
Jatropha can provide "environmentally responsible fuel without compromising the food supply, so we can help the Earth while helping the public," said James Garton, president of the firm's U.S. branch. "That means we can finally reverse the skyrocketing prices at the pump and dependence on traditional sources of oil."
The race for the next big thing in biofuels is attracting serious investor attention. Jatropha is seen as a leading candidate along with such rivals as algae and camelina, a flowering flaxlike plant that, like Jatropha, can grow in marginal agricultural lands.
Jatropha has been touted as among the most promising biofuel sources, but it is not without problems.
In a study released last month, a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looked at the efficiency of Jatropha and more than a dozen other proposed biofuel sources. Jatropha scored well as a fuel source and because the plant's husks, shells and meal could be used as fertilizer and other industrial purposes. Some of that gain, however, is offset by production and refining costs and the need for land to cultivate the plant.
"You can't say a biofuel is good or bad - it depends on how it is produced and processed, and that's part of the debate that hasn't been brought forward," James Hileman, who teaches in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said in a statement accompanying the survey, which was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Mission NewEnergy said it is linked to its producers via contract farming agreements in more than 15,000 villages across five Indian states. Those operations, the firm said, are providing sustained employment for more than 140,000 previously impoverished farmers. It takes three to four years to get maximum yield from a Jatropha plant, with a 20-year productive life estimated for most plants.
Using a biofuel such as Jatropha in an industry such as aviation has its appeals.
At the end of May, two industry executives briefed congressional staffers on a report about the use of biofuels in the U.S. aviation industry. Speaking with The Washington Times by phone after the event, the executives noted the need for biofuels as a way to help meet the rising cost of jet fuel. A 1-cent increase in the price of jet fuel rings up an extra $175 million in costs for U.S. airlines, reports indicate.
"Fuel is our single biggest cost. Today, fuel costs 47 percent more than it did last year. That's a pretty big spike for your single largest cost," said Keith Loveless, vice president of corporate and legal affairs for Seattle-based Alaska Airlines. "We are looking for all sorts of alternatives," he added.
Added Billy M. Glover, environment and aviation policy vice president at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, "It's not a matter of one [biofuel] feedstock being better than others. It's going to take a portfolio of feedstocks, a portfolio of processing methods. ... [T]o get to scale and make biofuels viable, you need feedstock options and a variety of processing methods."
Jatropha is being developed in Ghana, Tanzania, Peru and other nations such as India; a common denominator is the effort to grow the plant in areas where other crops aren't easily cultivated. Some environmentalists have said Jatropha has been overhyped and that optimal oil production requires initial irrigation and fertilizer that otherwise would be used for food production, a condition supporters say would affect only the short term.
Government officials in the southern African nation of Namibia late last month put the brakes on plans for large-scale Jatropha plantations in the country's northeast, citing the need for more study on the potential disruptive impact on food cultivation, landownership patterns and a loss of access to communal property.
Patrick M. O'Brien, a retired executive of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service who is now consulting for Mission NewEnergy, said Jatropha could find a domestic production base in an area extending "from Texas around the Gulf Coast up to South Carolina," although not too far north because of frost concerns. The areas where Jatropha could be grown domestically include some where farmers might reap profits.
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