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Global Ideas

'Miracle biofuel' jatropha faces thorny path

The seeds of the jatropha plant yield oil that can be burned in almost any diesel engine. So is jatropha a solution to the world's search for new energy? Or just another flop in the new generation of biofuel crops?

A woman plants jatropha seeds

Jatropha plants

For six months, German flagship airline Lufthansa flew on biodiesel on the route between Frankfurt and Hamburg. But that test phase ended in early 2012 as the image of biodiesels took a beating across Europe.

The European Union's biofuel targets which stand at 10 percent by 2020 could fall to 5 percent. The “food versus fuel“ debate is entering a new stage with most agreeing that precious farmland should not be wasted to cultivate plants for energy production. So does that spell the end for biofuels?

The debate usually focuses on bioethanol from foodcrops such as corn or sugarcane and on biodiesel from rapeseed and palm oil. But one plant stands out from the others: jatropha curcas cannot be used as food because its fruits are poisonous. Still, they contain strong oil-yielding seeds. And, jatropha can even flourish on arid ground that usually can't be used as farmland.

That makes it perfect to grow in wastelands in developing countries where small-scale farmers can earn an additional income by selling the jatropha seeds. India and Ecuador, among other nations, already cultivate the jatropha bush as a biofuel plant. But could jatropha really be a biofuel panacea?

Broken promises in India

The brown seed variety

There are various types of jatropha seeds

George Francis, who heads the biofuel project Live Energies, remembers that jatropha received glowing reports in the early 1990s.

The Indian-born researcher was doing his doctorate at the University of Hohenheim in southern Germany at the time. Scientists there were researching whether high-quality biodiesel could be produced from the oil of wild jatropha seeds.

Their experiments soon yielded success. But what proved significantly harder was the second part of the project where the jatropha plant cultivation was to be widened in India to find out the size of potential harvests in poor soil.

“But that was not so easy,“ Francis says. The jatropha plant needs around three years to reach a high productivity level. In the first years, only a few hundred grams of seeds per plant are harvested. Later, an individual plant can, under good conditions, deliver more than three kilograms of seeds with an oil content of 30 to 35 percent. That's similar to what other oil plants yield.

“In 2008, I went to India myself to help the organization,“ Francis says. “I was naive and thought the farmers have nothing to lose. We're only urging them to plant their fallow land with jatropha. They received the seedlings from us.“

But that didn't entirely convince the farmers. “It was nothing personal against us but these people had had very bad experiences with advice from foreign organizations in the past. They tried to palm off new plant types, promising them fantastic yields and secure sales which eventually didn't materialize.“

In addition, Francis realized that during extremely dry summers, the jatropha bushes did require a bit of irrigation. But it was exactly in those months that farmers left their barren fields to go and work in the cities.

As opposed to that, during the good summer months, they looked after their better fields and not the jatropha bushes. “So even with the best plants we had a yield of just one kilogram of seeds,“ Francis says. That's less than a third of what would have been possible under good conditions.

Living fences in Ecuador

Jatropha seeds ripen on a bush

One single jatropha plant can produce more than three kilos of oil-yielding seeds a year

The dashed hopes in India served as a warning at the other end of the world. Ecuador took a different route – no jatropha fields and no processing of oil to biodiesel.

Since 2009, Ecuador's Ministry for Electricity and Renewable Energies has been supporting small-scale farmers in the coastal region of Manabi. There, farmers had planted jatropha for generations in order to fence off farmland and to use the natural plant poison to keep animals away.

“Despite that, it was difficult to convince farmers to harvest the jatropha fruits from their living fences,“ Gabriela Campuzano, an engineer who works for the Ecuadorian ministry and is familiar with the project. “We had to explain to them how they could take care of their hedges in order to maximize the seed productivity of the plants.“

Earlier, the farmers used to hack off all the branches of the jatropha plant and secure the main stem with wires to build a fence. Now, they let the branches grow and instead trim the bushes in a layered manner to harvest the maximum number of seeds.

A shift in mood

The project has gradually found acceptance. In the first year, only 50 families participated in the first year, harvesting 24 tons of jatropha seeds. In 2012, the numbers had grown to 1,500 families and 215 tons of seeds. The farmers - who live in one of the poorest regions of the country - sell these to the government and thus get an additional income.

“In the time when the children go to school after the holidays, there's nothing else to harvest other than jatropha,” Campuzano says. “So, many families gather the jatropha seeds and buy learning materials for school from the proceeds. The jatropha harvest turns into a festival, you see people with huge sacks full of jatropha seeds riding on their donkeys,“ she says.

Rows of jatropha plants

Poisonous, oil-yielding and hardy: Jatropha

The Ecuadorian jatropha project is part of the The Renewable Energy Project for the Galapagos Islands – ERGAL. By the year 2020, the Ecuadorian islands are meant to switch fully to renewable energy. Floreana, one of the smaller Galapagos islands, managed this year to completely do away with fossil fuels.

Instead, a modified, former diesel generator now runs on pure, cold-pressed jatropha plant oil. “The next thing we want to do is to raise the oil production in such a way that we can generate electricity on one of the bigger Galapagos islands,“ Campuzano says. “Jatropha has a great future in this country.“

Even in India, despite teething troubles, jatropha cultivation continues to boom. Researchers are working on optimizing yields. Arup Ghosh from the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute in the western state of Gujarat says new cutting methods have allowed the best plants to multiply.

They are still cultivated on waste land, but with the right distance between plants, nutrients and cutting techniques. “We have now reached a high and uniform seed yield on all our test fields,“ Ghosh says. Even the tourist buses in the famous Gir National Park in Gujarat already run on biodiesel from jatropha.

DW.DE