Jatropha Footnote

Following my recent post on the energy situation in India, I received an e-mail from Sreenivas Ghatty, the founder and CEO of Tree Oils India. Sreenivas told me that I was correct that the jatropha situation in India has been overstated, and wanted to provide some facts on where jatropha stands. Sreenivas is involved in trying to establish a jatropha industry, and he wrote in part:

There are no large scale commercial plantations in India as of now. The plantation activity has commenced here and there during the last few years, but, it may take few more years before the commercial yields start. We have been focusing on research to improve yields and expect meaningful outcomes this year. Based on the results, we intend to expand plantation on our own and through contract farming in the next few years.

Jatropha is not panacea to feedstock problems. It has limitations and would fail under certain agro climatic conditions. There are other species such as Pongamia, Moringa, Madhuca and Neem which could perform well where Jatropha could fail. If right species and right plantation material are selected and the right agronomic practices are adopted, the results might be profitable, viable and sustainable to all the stakeholders.

He also provided some pictures from a jatropha plantation which were very interesting:

Jatropha Plantation in India (Photos courtesy of Tree Oils India Limited.)

Sreenivas also pointed me to an interview he had given on his biofuel activities:

The World is Green

His cites peak oil as a reason for becoming interested in this area:

Why BioFuels?

With peak oil approaching faster, alternative energy sources need to be developed. Biofuels are the cheapest and the most sustainable alternative and they can be produced and consumed locally by many people in small quantities. Alongside, there are also benefits to economy and environment.

And he doesn't make outrageous claims regarding the costs:

What could be the price of fuel using these feed stocks?

Under the circumstances, it cannot be less than $2 per litre.

The bottom line is that jatropha and other non-edible oil plantations are being established, but 1). It's going to take time; 2). The fuel that is produced may all be consumed locally.

If right species and right plantation material are selected and the right agronomic practices are adopted, the results might be profitable, viable and sustainable to all the stakeholders.

Hmmmmmm .... that's a lot of ifs, ands, unknowns, rights and mights ... sounds like stuff I read in the FT about the things that needed to happen to avoid the world banking system not having a systemic failure a couple of years ago, and stuff I read about other alternatives to oil.

It would be very surprising for that many things to all go right at the same time ... a very risky business proposition, more like a reseach proposal, and not likely to save the world in the timescale required.

Here is link that describes how an Indian railroad is using its land to grow Jatropha and mix the resulting oil with diesel to power trains. They use 5% biodiesel, which isn't much of reduction in FF usage, but it is a start. Another attibute of the Jatropha oil as fuel is employing people to harvest and transport the seed pods to presses.


We have a similar plant that grows wild all over the South called the Chinese Tallow Tree. It could, conceivably, churn out about 600 gallons of biodiesel, and about 500 gallons of cellulosic ethanol per acre. It's advantage is that it grows for about 90 years. It's disadvantage is once it's roots get into a farmer's field it's a real chore to get out. If algae doesn't go anywhere we might take a look at that in a few years.

The trick with all of these oilseed bushes, trees, etc is the human labor involved. We will, eventually, have to invent the equivalent of the mechanical cotton-picker. Once we have mechanized harvesting, I can't imagine that it would cost anywhere near $8.00/gallon to produce jatropha oil.

Knowing what I was like when I was in business, I can't help but suspect that our friend might just be doing a little poor-mouthing. I don't mean this in any way as an insult. It's just what I would have done to steer people away from competing with me. Anyway, we'll see. India's a twitchy place to do business with lot's of government interference. I seriously do wish him a lot of luck. Every little bit helps.

I've been able to repeatedly come up with a maximum price for reduced organic liquid fuels of around 15-20 dollars a gallon using a number of approaches. I'd suspect your 8 dollars a gallon probably fits in this range once you include other costs and renewable power requirements.

The only reasons prices would go over that is because of limited supply not any intrinsic cost problem. You do have a feedback problem to some extent. I.e if supply is limited and prices went to 30 dollars a gallon then you would have increased production costs. But to a large extent with a bit of vertical integration the farmer need not pay the supply premium for fuel used in farming.

Although for our current lifestyle these numbers may sound scary. We are not out of fossil fuels and they can supplement organic fuels for some time. This would lower the costs vs a pure renewable organic solution.

So the bottom line is it seems that we have a real top to costs thats inline with supply for PRUDENT use of organic liquid fuels where substitution is not viable.

In my opinion this is probably airplanes, heavy equipment in remote areas, moving goods in the more remote regions etc.

On the organic fuel side solid oxide fuel cells are a viable solution that can be refined to power larger equipment. This would fit well with all electric solutions that use solid oxide stacks when grid power is not available.

The nice thing about the fuel cells is they have better efficiency. And of course at these pricing levels efficiency will become important. Also of course by simply extending the time scales and using PV/Wind you can probably limit usage even more.

Although a different world from what we have today it seems that viable renewable use of organic liquid fuels is possible and a beneficial to society.

At an ag research station on the Colorado Plateau, hybrid poplar trees are being grown & evaluated as a possible feedstock for lignocellulosic biofuels. I understand that a similar study is underway in semiarid eastern Oregon. At the former science center the soil pH is 8.2 and the mean annual precipitation is 8.2". These water needy poplar trees are irrigated with an elaborate drip system encorporating solenoid valves controlled by computer. This system is prone to problems and a much less costly system could have been employed, with workers opening the valves by hand & timing irrigation with their wristwatches. These "workers" who maintain the irrigation & tend the trees are mostly Masters & PhD level research technicians & scientists, who get paid accordingly. At such high pH the trees must receive micronutrient supplimentation, to replace mineral ions tied up in the "soil," if you can call these loess sediments that. There is currently no market for these trees. An excelsior mill may take them and there is vague talk of using them for cogeneration altho the local coal fired powerplants aren't interested in bothering with them. When the suggestion was recently made that rather than burning the pruning slash it should be chipped & returned to the soil, a Japanese made chipper/grinder was purchased for $12K. No thot was given to the probability that the gasoline burned to chip the slash would liberate more oxidized carbon into the atmosphere than burning the slash would. After less than 15 hours operation, the automatic feed on the chipper is broken & needs expensive repair. No one cares, as it is the taxpayer who foots the bill.

Clearly, attempting to grow these trees under these conditions is akin to trying to grow bananas in Alaska. If enuf $$ is thrown into their maintainence it's possible to get them to grow. Barely, and some clones not at all. But there are grant moneys available for "biofuels" research; scientists have their form of welfare available to them too. As do corn farmers. I guess it can be said that this waste of our tax $s is less detrimental than using it to kill Iraqis & Afghans, at least. Why not just grow food, or grow trees appropriate to the region for firewood? Are you kidding? There's no grant $$ available for that!

"They starve so that we can drive."

Coming to South West Florida for better or worse:


In LaBelle, a company called My Dream Fuel LLC is cultivating Jatropha curcas, a tree-shrub that shows promise as a new biodiesel crop in the U.S. that could one day power engines and generators.

Nearly 1 million seedlings are in the ground at a nursery in Hendry County and promoters are looking for farmers – here and across the country – to raise them as oil-producing plants.


Growing these Jatropha trees in Florida may be a good location since the state is known for soils having a lot of phosphorus. Much phosphate is mined there and shipped to other parts of the country. So, maybe the inputs would be minimal, only energy required is on harvesting the seed pods and crushing them.

Still I would not want to see too much of this grown in Florida as it might crowd out food crops for the local population.

I have a question that I hope some one can answer for me.

How do we deal with the phosphate issue given the possible peak in world phosphate production?

Firstly let me say that I like the idea of bio-fuels, and Jatropha sounds like a good idea for non-tropical/non-subtropical climates where sugarcane is less viable.

As I understand it from my bio-chem days vegetable oils are composed of triglycerides. Each molecule of vegetable triglycerides containing one Phosphate atom.

Therefore phosphate input must me supplied to the soil else the Jatropha plant will be unable to produce the required vegetable oil.

Could Peak Phosphate be Algal Diesel's Achilles' Heel?


The Jatropha Curcas trees are indiginous to the southwest US and northern Mexico. They grow there because of the climate and the soil which probably has some of the phosphorus element in the soil, IMO. Studies of growing them in India show that yields are much better when NPK fertilizers are applied. Also, they don't require much water to grow, but seed production is enhanced with some irrigation (don't know how much).

As I understand it from my bio-chem days vegetable oils are composed of triglycerides. Each molecule of vegetable triglycerides containing one Phosphate atom.

You're mistaking triglycerides for phospholipids.

Thanks for the follow-up. However, the one thing I see missing from the analysis is cost as measured in terms of agricultural land. India is a heavily populated country with a lot of poverty, and they've already been hit by rising food prices.

Please, don't get me wrong. I'm NOT downplaying the seriousness of the Fertilizer shortages we're seeing developing. I think this is going to make life even more interesting in the coming years than it was going to be otherwise. However, algae, and to a lesser extent, I think, Jatropha will return a lot of it's phosphorous back into the system.

It's my hunch that most of the phosphorous locked up in algae will exit in the biomass, and not in the oil. An analogous situation would be where the advanced ethanol plants are removing the corn oil before processing the starch for ethanol. It's my understanding that this does not, to any appreciable extent, affect the nutrient content of the left-over distillers grains.

Thanks for your comment. I was thinking more of landspace rather than fertilizer, knowing little as I do about all the resources needed for agriculture.

Just for clarification, are you saying jatropha ethanol would result in a net gain for phosphorous, or a minimal net loss?

Pepper, that amount that is removed in the oil, and burned in an engine would definitely be lost. I'm just guessing (I'll try to find some proof) that most of the phosphates will end up in the remaining biomass which will probably, in the end, be fed to cattle, and returned to the earth as manure, or some derivative, thereof.

The third world has always depended on wood as a biofuel for cooking. They did not need any legislation to convince them to use biofuels, nor were laws required for them to burn the rain forests to make way for sugarcane or palm oil plantations.

I've planted some Chinese Tallow and olive trees, currently about 1.2 metres high and years away from bearing fruit. By that time oil from algae will have been proven or disproven. I think trees have a resilience advantage over slime insofar as they reduce contamination or predation of their lipid producing organs, which then dry in the sun. The problem is slow growth and harvesting effort.

However I'd have to say that oil from trees is a novelty not a large scale solution. Transport must be electrified and the need for liquid fuels (eg aircraft, range extended PHEVs) must come from thermochemical processing of nonfood biomass.

There was a TOD thread last year that has discredited some of the hype about algae oil. Many have made false statements about operating costs required to produce fuels. I recently read that cellulosic ethanol could be produced for under a dollar a gallon. If it is that cheap, why is there no cellulosic ethanol available?

I have read the the EU is not able to meet its biofuels objectives during the preliminary stages. They have stated that they want 10% of the fuel to be biofuels by 2020.


There are numerous indications food to biofuels will not be economically viable.

I have a problem: All of these efforts are, essentially, an attempt to maintain business as usual. We refer to them as "Silver BB's" as though these BB's they have real meaning.

I'm certainly not against using biological materials for energy - I heat with wood - but it is off my own land. And, to me, this is key. I'm not diverting land. Not only is my wood use sustainable but I am actually building biomass. Nor am I "over populating it." I have 57 acres, ~23 hectares, and in many areas this would represent a population of 5,000 or more people. In an extreme case, it would be over 50,000 people. All of these people demand resources they don't personally have.

I have come to the conclusion that the more society attempts to pursue these kinds of useless stopgaps, the worse then end result will be.


I agree Todd. Fact is the world economy with all its energy demands, rising population and associated food requirements, is unsustainable. Only primitive tribes live on a sustainable level. So essentially what humanity has done is multiply, extract, develop, construct, install, pave, etc. without any consideration whatsoever as the eventuation of that endeavor. There were no contingencies, plan B's, what if's, or could be's, just a race to achieve as much as possible, individually and collectively.
And of course with that approach there must be some point along the way when one or more resources dwindles and the expansion is compromised.

It's really no different than any other specie that simply devours what's immediately available. I know that's a harsh analogy, yet accurate none the less. Maybe humankind in some distant future will plan ahead with a view to the apparently elusive concept of sustainability.

I have a problem: All of these efforts are, essentially, an attempt to maintain business as usual.

I have a problem as well. Given that it disturbs me terribly to think of a single child starving or freezing to death - I have a problem idly standing by while billions suffer this fate. But hey, you have your 57 acres, so you needn't worry.

I can't imagine someone having a problem with efforts to mitigate disaster in the name of a sound bite like "business as usual." This business as usual for a very large fraction of the world's population is already a very hard life. Are you content to watch a large portion die? I am not. How about if we are talking about your family and friends? Are you going to try to save any of them? Why not? It would just be business as usual. I tell you there are a lot of Jews in WWII that are lucky Oskar Schindler didn't have your attitude.


Nice straw man argument...millions going to die without biofuels to keep BAU going. Since you are the numbers guy, why don't you quantify how many people biofeuls will keep from dying. I would argue that more people have died, or will die, because of biofuels.

As far as mt 57 acres: I made a choice in the late 60's/early 70's to live as sustainable a lifestyle as I could - not perfect but pretty good. I gave up a career in the chemical industry, I was a plant manager at the time, and, ultimately, several million in income to do this. How much are you willing to give up?

Finally, people are going to die because of overshoot whether BAU continues or not.


No strawman, just addressing what you said. Here we are discussing mitigation efforts involving a non-food oil grown on marginal land. And you have a "problem" with this because it promotes business as usual. Of course your situation is such that you expect BAU to continue.

I don't think too many of us would cast a blind eye to a child drowning in a lake. Yet some casually talk about billions starving to death. I don't get it. I guess to some those "billions" are just a statistic.

What would I give up? Are you mad? Right now I am giving up substantial time with my family in order to put us in a good position to weather the potential storms ahead. That's time I will never get back, and it's worth more to me than the millions you say you lost.

This business as usual for a very large fraction of the world's population is already a very hard life. Are you content to watch a large portion die? I am not.

So then how, exactly will you convince a change to the cheap price put on life under BAU?

If the people who pitch 'the carrying capacity of the biosphere for man is 2 billion' (or whatever number that is smaller than the 6 bil) are right, there is gonna be a die-off. The question becomes 'how' - and what will be the effect of that 'how'.

What are jatropha's limitations? (I think I had read somthing regarding its potential for corrosion in diesal engines and toxicity correct me if I am wrong). More importantly does increasing its yield perpetuate India's poverty? A noteworthy alternative would be sweet sorghum (madhura). Sweet sorghum has numerous benefits. It can be used as fodder, it can be grown in a myriad of weather conditions, and it produces edible grain at a relatively inexpensive price. The only other species, the moringa tree (mentioned in the article)yields just as promising results as sweet sorghum. Similarly it has the potential to combat poverty because of its edible and nutritious leaves.

I've read plenty of reports about jatropha being toxic but this doesn't seem to be conclusive - apparently some varieties aren't.


I've read that jatropha has actually been banned in Australia because of concerns that it will become yet another invasive weed - and one that could cause health problems for sheep and cattle in the outback if it became endemic.

I think the important aspect to keep in mind is that it can (and should only) be grown on marginal land that isn't suitable for food crops - otherwise we're just heading back into "fermenting the food supply" territory.

I've read that jatropha has actually been banned in Australia because of concerns that it will become yet another invasive weed - and one that could cause health problems for sheep and cattle in the outback if it became endemic.

That is correct. The Australian government banned it as an undesirable invasive species.

Neste Oil, which is currently using RSPO certified palm oil for their NExBTL 'renewable diesel' is looking seriously into Jatropha (Curcas).

I've understood from interviews and articles w/ Neste's people, that they are currently using palm oil, but it is seen as a 'transitional' feedstock for them, and only RSPO certified.

Trial plans will run first for Jathropa in Europe, but there are plans for plants plants in India. In their PR they are touting their process as a clean fuel even with palm oil and expecte better with Jatropha, with reduced emissions and good fit for European diesel car fleet.

On the other hand, Greenpeace and others think that even RSPO certified palm oil doesn't guarantee it'll avoid rain forest deforestation or food vs fuel fight in competition for cultivable land area. I would assume that their stance on Jatropha would be similar, if the practices around Jatropha turn out to be similar to that of palm oil cultivation.

Also, IFEU's 2007 Jatropha biodiesel study findings concluded that:

  • "can help save fossil resources and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions ... when it replaces energy carriers that are particularly harmful to the environment such as coal in case of power plants or, in case of vehicles, diesel fuel with high sulphur levels which is still used today in many non-European countries"
  • "increased negative environmental impacts such as acidification, eutrophication and ozone depletion through nitrous oxide"
  • "Due to the facility’s high energy consumption, the Jatropha biodiesel from the pilot plant makes only a minor contribution of resource saving"
  • "centralised Jatropha fruit processing facilities deliver better results than decentralised ones" (i.e. biomass logistics issue)
  • "recommended to restrict the cultivation of Jatropha to sites where the removal of the existing vegetation does not lead to greenhouse gas emissions"
  • "lack of sound scientific data regarding the water consumption of Jatropha cultivation as well as its effect on biodiversity and soil fertility"

Although, again studies by the Neste, Scania, MAN and Technical Research Centre of Finland conclude that NExBTL use means:

  • 10-20% less nitrogen oxides (cf. fossil diesel)
  • 27% less small particles
  • 15-50% less hydrocarbons
  • 10% less carbon monoxide
  • 30-40% less formaldehydes

So, there are feedstocks, and there are processes. And all are not made equal, it seems.

All-in all it seems that Jatropha is not a free ride and any industrial Jatropha production MUST be based on sound industrial ecological principles, not on "what is cheapest way" assessment, as these are not always the same due to externalities.

Also, there must be a strict certification process to guarantee that Jatropha is indeed cultivated without additional irrigation on 'marginal' land and does not destroy vegetation that binds CO2, as the CO2 balance can then turn negative.

Truly no magic weed, regardless of what you hear from advocates, but a potential and possibly useful biomass feedstock in the future. At least for India and possibly parts of China, not so sure about Europe :D

At least, that is my current assessment.

* As always, I'm in no way affiliated with Neste, don't hold stocks, blah-blah... Just following the situation, because the company is local.

Some factoids related to this subject Ive picked up...

1)Free-markets(and free-marketeers)are rarely either. Wild commodity price fluctuations are usefull only for speculators and producers/holders for as long as the rally lasts. This latest rally looks like its going to last for some time. Thanx Bush/Cheney.

2)The corn-ethanol hoax has caused way too much corn to be planted, at the expense of soybeans. Soy and other vegoils have gone skyhigh consequently, virtually shutting down the bioDIESEL industry in its infancy. BTW all biodiesel is over 47 Cetane. Trust me, its important.

3)One reason diesel fuel has gotten so precious...the good stuff is being exported to EU for more profits in euros. While we are left with whatever under "40" Cetane crap thats left. Hey, our lungs are accustomed...wtf does BigOil care? Shell is goo-goo about their GTL diesel, but Ive been unable to find out what their "Premium Diesel" is. Their dealers dont know either.

4)Dont oil palms grow in sandy soil , with bad water? Surprised no one in South Florida is growing them.