Bio-ethanol From Sturdy and Once-Unwanted Indian Plant

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

With awareness of global warming at an all-time high – and governments seeking real-world solutions to solve this enormous problem – bioethanol fuel has risen up the agenda as a replacement for conventional fuel sources. At present, most bioethanol fuel is produced from either corn or sugar but a less known plant jatropha could be the real solution. Brazil has been a pioneer in producing bioethanol fuel from sugar, while the United States has focused on its substantial corn crop as a source, and both contribute more than half the world’s supply. Brazil alone made US $5.4 billion from biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel combined) in 2005, while global production is estimated at 48 billion litres (Biofuel Market Worldwide (2007-2010) www.canbiotech.com).

Global prices for crude oil, under pressure from a number of sources, are volatile and far above 1990s levels. This hurts the poorest countries most (Human Development Report 2005). Expensive fuel means the world’s poor are denied affordable access to machinery and appliances that can make life more comfortable. Poorer nations are often more dependent on oil imports than richer countries. As well, most of their industries are energy intensive, and their cars and homes are less energy efficient. This means low-income countries spend twice as much of their national income on imported oil than do developed countries (World Bank). A US $10 per barrel increase in the cost of crude oil shaves half a percentage point from economic growth in the West; in the poorest countries, it is nearly three times higher.

The two common sources of bioethanol fuel – corn and cane sugar – have a major drawback: they are diverting food sources into fuel for vehicles. Already, the massive US diversion of corn into the bioethanol fuel market has sent the price of corn skyrocketing, making this hardy food staple in countries like Mexico more expensive for the poor. Some estimates claim ethanol plants will burn up to half of the United States’ domestic corn supplies within a few years (Foreign Affairs). To fill the fuel tank of a sports utility vehicle (SUV) with pure ethanol requires 450 pounds of corn – enough calories to feed one person for a year.

And this is why many are now advocating a non-edible Indian fruit bush called jatropha as a better solution. It is like a grapefruit, with each fruit containing three plum-sized seeds. Each seed contains 35 percent oil which can be converted into biodiesel. A shrub from the family euphorbiaceae, jatropha’s lifespan is 50 years. It bears fruit several times a year, and each bunch is five to eight fruits. Being unedible, the oil is mostly used for soap and varnishes.

Cultivation of the jatropha was prioritised a year ago by the Indian Railway Minister, Lalu Prasad Yadav. Disused railways lands were to be put aside for growing the crop. Brazil’s biodiesel company, Biomasa, plans to plant two million hectares with jatropha this year, and it is believed jatropha will surpass sugar cane as the principal source for bioethanol in Brazil.

The advantages of jatropha include its hardy nature: it does not require pesticide, manure, or irrigation to grow and it is drought resistant. A single jatropha plant will yield one litre of biodiesel per year for 40 years, and it yields 1,300 kg of seeds per hectare per year. Its advocates hope to see jatropha bushes planted alongside existing crops, with an acre producing 100 litres of fuel per year.

The downsides of cultivating jatropha as a fuel source would need to be overcome. At present, jatropha’s high acidity means its seeds degrade quickly in humid environments (much of the global South) when exposed to air. Steel tanks used for storage require a nitrogen blanket to prevent water absorption. During the processing stage (something called transesterification), the large quantities of glycerine are produced as a byproduct. Demand is low for this byproduct and disposal is a problem. A cake is also produced that has no real value or use. To make it economically worthwhile to grow in India for example, farmers would need to receive four rupees per kg of seed. This would produce a biofuel costing 50 rupees per litre – considered too expensive at present. Jatropha advocates are urging government subsidies to kick-start production and make the price competitive.

In Ghana, smallholder farmers have already rebelled against growing jatropha. They say that since the oil is inedible, and growing the crop leaves them at the mercy of price-setting by the refineries, they do not want to run the risk.

“What may encourage farmers to venture into jatropha,” said Wisdom Yao Adjah-Cudjoe, a cereal farmers’ representative, “would be a guaranteed price arrangement, as is the case with cocoa.”

In Africa, research by the South African Biodiversity Institute has estimated that 50 percent of the landmass of the continent is suitable for jatropha cultivation (a total of 1,080 million hectares). It could be a huge opportunity for African farmers and a big cost saving for poor countries, but if farmers are to be encouraged to grow jatropha, they will need the right price incentives and guarantees.

Resources

  • Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd: An Indian company specialising in helping farmers to begin growing jatropha plants.

  • Centre for Jatropha Promotion: Based in Charu, Rajasthan, India, it researches all aspects of jatropha cultivation and acts as a seed bank.

  • Kick Start Oil Press: Developed in 1993, the Kick Start Oil Press was designed for use in Africa by farmers. It is manufactured in Kenya and sold as a complete kit for entrepreneurs to get started pressing seed for oil. The Kick Start NGO designs technologies for private entrepreneurs of small-scale enterprises, and has offices in Kenya, Tanzania and Mali.

  • Haiti Innovation: Established by former Peace Corps volunteers, and links Haitian NGOs with aid donors. It encourages projects to post on the web and contributors to donate directly to them. It is currently promoting the growing of jatropha in Haiti.

  • Agricultural Biotechnology Network in Africa (ABNETA): This is an excellent source for real-time news and information sources on the biofuel market in Africa.

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