- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2006

FARIDABAD, India — Indians know better than to eat the plum-sized fruit of the wild jatropha bush. It’s poisonous enough to kill.

But with oil prices surging, the lowly jatropha is experiencing a rebirth as a potential source of fuel for trucks and power stations. The government has identified 98 million acres where jatropha can be grown, hoping it will replace 20 percent of diesel consumption in five years.

“We have found that we can produce biodiesel from it. If we can keep the price down, the future looks bright,” said R.K. Malhotra, who oversees the Indian Oil Corp. Ltd. research center that is running tests on the oil.

India isn’t alone. All across Asia, governments are searching for crops that can help them offset their dependence on imported oil, which can only increase as their economies take off. Oil palm and sugar cane are the dominant crops in the region, but everything from coconuts to castor oil to cow dung is being tested for fossil-fuel alternatives such as ethanol and biodiesel.

Most specialists think that, using current technologies, there isn’t enough land to make a serious dent in oil consumption. Some scientists say biofuels will consume more energy than they will save, and environmentalists last month protested plans by Indonesia to convert millions of acres of rain forest on the island of Borneo into oil-palm plantations.

Eat or ride?

Arthur J. Ragauskas, a professor at Georgia Tech who co-authored a study of biofuels published in Science magazine, sees other potential pitfalls.

“One criticism of biofuels is that if you want to go from 2 percent to 20 percent, you would have to direct so much of that agriculture from food to fuel that there would be real competition between the two,” he said in a telephone interview. “Even worse, if we have a famine in part of the world, we would have to make a decision as a society between food or fuel.”

For now, alternative fuels provide less than 1 percent of fuel use in most of Asia, and specialists say large-scale use is years or decades away.

Still, “every country in Asia is trying to commercialize and put up legislation on biofuels,” said Conrado Heruela, a renewable-energy specialist with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. “Right now, the target is not that big, but it will be very significant in the long term,” he said.

Ethanol, distilled mostly from corn in the United States and from sugar cane in Brazil and Asia, is mixed with gasoline. Biodiesel comes mostly from rapeseed in Europe, vegetable oil in the United States, and oil palm, coconut oil and jatropha in Asia, and is mixed with diesel fuel.

Ethanol produces 13 percent less greenhouse gas than fossil fuels, a recent study published in Science magazine found, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture says biodiesel can reduce carbon emissions by 78 percent.

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej has a car that runs on palm oil and has been praising the substitute fuel to his subjects for more than 20 years. Today, hundreds of gas stations in the capital, Bangkok, sell “gasohol” — 90 percent gasoline mixed with 10 percent ethanol — and it’s slightly cheaper than regular gas.

Thailand also grants the sugar industry tax breaks to produce ethanol and is following the United States in a plan to replace the toxic fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether with ethanol. Still, supply does not match demand.

Asian interest

On some Pacific islands, whose isolation makes oil imports more costly and vulnerable to market shifts, power companies are looking for other sources.

“The use of alternative fuels is very much the topic of the moment among the small utilities in the Pacific,” said Jean Chaniel, general manager of Unelco Vanuatu, whose company runs some generators on 5 percent coconut oil.

The Fiji Electricity Authority plans to switch entirely to renewable energy by 2011.

India says it wants to increase its use of renewable energy from the current 5 percent to 25 percent by 2030. Much of this will come from nuclear power plants, but the country also is examining wind power and other methods, including jatropha.

About half of India drives on gasoline with 5 percent ethanol, and the government aims to increase that to 20 percent in the next decade.

In China, the government is promoting ethanol and financing nuclear, hydroelectric and solar power, aiming to increase renewable energy sources from the current 7 percent to 15 percent by 2020.

High oil prices and rising car ownership mean that “there is great market potential to develop renewable vehicle fuel,” China’s National Development and Reform Commission said. “Introducing ethanol fuel is good to improve the environment, stabilize grain production and promote sustainable economic development.”

Other countries are using the interest in biofuels to boost their farming sectors.

Malaysia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, has issued 10 licenses for plants to produce biodiesel for export, mostly to the European Union, which has mandated that all fuels contain 5.75 percent biofuels by 2010.

The Archer Daniels Midland Co., based in Decatur, Ill., last year announced plans to build a $29 million biodiesel facility in Singapore.

BP is spending $9.4 million to study jatropha in India, and the company announced in March that it will produce 29 million gallons of ethanol a year by 2007 in Australia, which aims to substitute 2 percent of oil use by 2010 with ethanol.

India likes jatropha fuel

British-based D1 Oils PLC is investing up to $20 million, mostly to grow jatropha bushes in India, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Indian government says it has run dozens of trucks and buses on jatropha-based biodiesel, and is growing 18.5 million acres of jatropha saplings along the country’s railroad tracks. It intends to start mixing 5 percent of jatropha — 2.6 million tons — into diesel by next year.

Seeds from the jatropha fruit are crushed to produce a yellowish oil that is refined and then mixed with diesel. Yield estimates remain open to debate, with the Indian government saying the yield could be up to 4 tons of biodiesel per acre of jatropha — or a fifth of that — depending on how successfully farmers cultivate it.

Jatropha appears to have advantages in Asia over competitors such as oil palm, because it can be grown almost anywhere. This means it won’t compete with food crops. Jatropha also has not appeared to threaten rain forest and other environmentally sensitive areas.

Chris Chatterton, chief executive officer of D1 Oils Southeast Asia, sees jatropha as “a major competitor with palm oil.” And a nonedible source is an advantage over rapeseed or sunflower oil, he said, because “you are not taking land that would otherwise be used for food … It is a bit bourgeois to take edible biodiesel so Europeans can drive around in their Mercedes.”

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