Jatropha: Possible Jet Fuel but Difficult to Scale Up

If you had not gathered this before, then you should know that I have been favorably impressed with the potential of algae as a future source of biofuels. However I recognize that there is a considerable amount of research and business development and growth that will have to occur before such fuel makes a significant impact in the market place.

Of the other alternative biofuel sources, I was also considerate of jatropha, which seemed to have some significant potential. The fuel comes from the nuts which the shrub produces, and since it can be grown on quite poor land, and in some countries is already in use a fencing plant I anticipated that its potential would be increasingly recognized. Well, it has not quite turned out the way that I thought it would, at least not yet.

And so some comments on what has, and has not, happened. Jatropha seems to have its own slogan “Soil to Oil” with a Center for Jatropha Promotion & Biodiesel located in Rajasthan in India. Jatropha curcus is a shrub or small tree that can grow on poor to marginal land in tropical parts of the world, growing to a height of perhaps 15 feet. It produces a nut in clusters of around 10, and the nuts contain seeds which are about 37% of an oil that will run a diesel engine without further refining.

The oil has been used in a 50:50 blend with jet fuel to power one engine of an Air New Zealand 747 on a 2-hour flight last December 30th. The oil has a lower freezing temperature than jet fuel, and has been estimated to cost around $43 per barrel. This flight was followed, on January 7th by a Continental Airlines flight which used a 737-800, and a mix of oil from jatropha and algae. The flight saw a 3% savings in fuel by the engine using the biofuel. The algae oil came from Sapphire Energy; the jatropha came from Terasol Energy. The biofuel was mixed 50:50 with jet fuel, and there were no modifications made to the engine.

The success of the test has encouraged Sapphire, who is now predicting that they will be able to produce 1 million gal/year (65 barrels/day) of diesel and jet fuel, rising to 10 million gallons (650 bd) by 2018 and 1 billion gallons (65 kbd) by 2025. Sapphire is based in San Diego.

Terasol supplies both oil and feedstocks, concentrating, at the moment, on jatropha and castor bean oil.

Japanese Airlines carried out their own test on January 30th. The Japanese flight, an hour-and-a-half long, used a mixture of 84% camelina, under 16% jatropha oil, and under 1% algal oil.

Camelina, (or wild flax) incidentally looks as though it deserves more investigation, since it grows on poor ground and has twice the yield of soy. Further it also has a low gell temperature. The spent biomass is recognized as a good animal feed, and it grows in places like Kansas and Montana, perhaps alternating with wheat, in which combination it apparently increases the wheat yield by 15%, and gives 100 gallons/acre of oil.
According to the article:

Dr. Bill Schillinger at Washington State University recently described camelina’s business model to Capital Press as: “At 1,400 pounds per acre at 16 cents a pound, camelina would bring in $224 per acre; 28-bushel white wheat at $8.23 per bushel would garner $230.”

Returning to jatropha, the President of Terasol recently answered some questions for Scientific American. He noted that the main problem the fuel now faces is one of scale.

. . . the main obstacle is the lack of research and practice in large-scale commercial cultivation, as well as mechanized harvesting. Currently most jatropha and castor are grown on smaller, independent farms. The second obstacle is yield and unit of input. Research in plant breeding needs to continue in order to improve the quantity and quality of oils being produced.

They see commercial quantities of the jatropha being available in 3-5 years.

The optimistic view of jatropha’s future is becoming less common, even as it is projected as a fuel of the future. There in fact some doubts about its feasibility:

Not only was the cultivation of jatropha supposed to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere than it released, but the miracle tree could also stabilize and restore degraded soils. That’s surely why Scientific American in 2007 called jatropha “green gold in a shrub,” a plant that “seems to offer all the benefits of biofuels without the pitfalls.”

Fast forward a couple of years. By 2009, governments from China to Brazil, along with several major biofuel companies, had planted — or vowed to plant — millions of acres of jatropha. In India alone, the government has announced plans to subsidize an intensive program to plant jatropha for biofuels on 27 million acres of “wastelands” — an area roughly the size of Switzerland.

The problem, again, is one of scale. With the average farm being around 12 acres (at 2-300 gal/acre/year) the current gains come mainly from local use, rather than collection to meet larger national goals.

For example, in Mali the nation has some 10,000 km of jatropha hedges that yield about 1 kg/meter/year. If all the nuts were collected and processed this would yield around 5 million liters per yr of oil (85.8 bd). Typical village hedge lies between 2 & 15 km, making oil generation very much a local enterprise. It is growing because there has been a move to provide local women with engine powered grain mills, to start small businesses. But the fuel cost was prohibitive. Collecting and processing the nuts can not only provide the needed fuel, but also inject about $3,800 on average, per village per year. As a result local hedges are growing in length, though somewhat slowly (from 5 – 15 km in 8 years.) The projects have also benefitted from development of a shelling machine for the nuts.

But while the growth is commendable, it is nowhere near working at the scale needed to have a significant market impact. The latest news is that to get high yields, huge water inputs are needed--20,000 liters of water to produce one liter of biofuel. This news will further make scaling up oil production from jatropha difficult.

The key to the problem is in the last paragraph - 'to get high yields, huge water inputs are needed'. This is not really 'news', unfortunately. Jatropha is a drought-tolerant plant, and so can be planted on marginal land, and will survive. If you feed it and water it, it will grow more, and give a better yield. But if you have access to irrigation and fertiliser, of course you can grow food! So why not just plant it on ordinary arable land........I think this is what is known by many as a no-brainer.

According to a recent paper in PNAS on the water footprint of biofuels, Jatropha is the worst: Water Footprint for biofuels

This data is all based on calculations, no test plots planted, no actual measurement of water applied to crops(rain or irrigation), no record of NPK applied, no actual measurement of liters of oil produced. Thus no direct correlation between water applied and oil out. The authors obtained rainfall data and evaporation data, then suveyed crop yields to get a water to oil yield ratio (they call it water footprint). This method of analysis has a large margin for error.

Remember that studies do not give results, only point a possible direction that real empirical work (testing) may produce. This study does a lot of assuming according to the "supporting information" shown on the right sidebar of the article. Too much assuming means the conclusion is not likely to be accurate.

yes, good point. This study in Egypt tried growing them under water stress and used between 300 and 400 L / per kg of oil.

Response of Jatropha curcas L. to water deficit: Yield, water use efficiency and oilseed characteristics
Abdrabbo A. Abou Kheiraa, Nahed M.M. Attab
Water Management Research Institute, National Water Research Center, Delta Barrage, P.O. Box 13621/5, Egypt
Oil and Fat Research Department, Food Technology Research Institute, Agricultural Research Center, Giza, Egypt
Field experiment was carried out at Enshas Experiment Station; Jatropha was transplanted
and treated after the second year of the transplanting by different amounts of water stress,
viz. 125%, 100%, 75% and 50% of potential evapotranspiration (ETp). The study aims to
ensure the multiple benefits of Jatropha and its suitability under Egypt’s climate in unused
lands under scarce water conditions. The results revealed that the average water
consumption rate of Jatropha is 6 L per week throughout the growing season, which means
that Jatropha can survive and produce full yield with high quality seeds under minimum
water requirements compared to other crops. The yield of extracted oil was 85.5, 175.2, 90.5
and 66.5 kg/ha at 125%, 100%, 75% and 50% of ETp, respectively. The lowest values of total
lipid (oil) (25% and 24.5% of Jatropha seeds) were recorded with Jatropha trees that were
irrigated by 125% and 50% of ETp, respectively. On the other hand, the treatment that was
irrigated by 100% of ETp (control) recorded the highest value of total oil in the seeds
(29.93%). The results also revealed that there are no significant differences among the
values of the determined oil characteristics due to different water stress ratios. From the
results, it could be concluded that the highest characteristics of Jatropha seed oil were
recorded with 100% of ETp. In addition water stress had no significant effect on the fatty
acid composition of Jatropha seed oil.

Jon R. Luoma at Yale e360 has a excellent report on the problems with jatropha and the companies that are trying to make it work. There is a big conflict brewing in India where companies are buying off gov't officials to take grazelands from villagers to grow biofuels for export.

Jon R. Luoma at Yale e360 has a excellent report on the problems with jatropha and the companies that are trying to make it work. There is a big conflict brewing in India where companies are buying off gov't officials to take grazelands from villagers to grow biofuels for export.

Count Jatropha as another silver bb. It seems jatropha does well for the very people who were being priced out of the market when oil was at $145/bbl. It also requires decentralized production, in states such as the subsaharan region where the people have been victimized by centralized, state control of resources.
While it would have been a nice for jatropha to be capable of mass production, I see a small miracle in a plant which can be grown by any farmer, and turned into usable equivalent of diesel fuel without significant outside inputs, for a whole section of the world's population which had been excluded from the benefits of a fossil fuel driven society.

It's a good point. The trick is in not letting 'Big Oil/AG' steamroll local farmers and herders, as is happening in some marginal lands across India. It might be a balance that impossible to hold.


'Wastelands' Not Always Unused
Furthermore, groups such as Navdanya have pointed out that many of the lands called “wastelands” by government actually are used by rural populations for grazing and other agricultural uses. Having no adequate land rights, and vital to these people’s survival can be put at risk in the rush to embrace Jatropha cultivation.

In a YesMagazine interview with Vandana Shiva, there is a helpful series of descriptions of how these 'Marginal Land Crops' will very likely yield more poverty and loss..


There may be little rainfall in the deserts of Rajasthan, but the culture of Rajasthan evolved to manage that amount of rainfall, and they have developed miraculous technologies for harvesting and storing what rain they get. They have sophisticated underground storage systems and water-harvesting systems so that not a drop is wasted. These technologies still sustain cities like Jodhpur and Jaipur. They have enough drinking water because they've developed a conservation culture, and they grow crops that don't need much water. The moment you think the desert of Rajasthan should be growing rice paddy or cotton, you create scarcity.

Scarcity is not a result of uneven endowments—that is diversity. Scarcity is having a mismatch between a culture and nature's giving. Cultures have evolved cultural diversity to mimic the biological diversity of climates and ecosystems. It's when that relationship is disrupted that you get unsustainable population growth.

... Instead of leaving seeds in the hands of the peasants who co-evolve them in partnership with nature, seeds become a monopoly in the hands of five or six global corporations. Instead of water belonging to millions of local communities, water too is to be controlled by five or six global water giants. These are recipes that use economic systems to appropriate for the few the base of survival of the majority. The 80 percent who are dispossessed of the wealth of nature move into economic insecurity, because their livelihood as peasants, as fishermen, as farmers, as tribals, as forest dwellers, all depend on having the fisheries, the land, the forest, to make a living. When those rights are taken away, they become economic refugees—they become disposable people.


Well said - I was just logging in to say exactly the same thing as you were posting that. In fact, you could argue that these people living on "marginal lands" have far more to offer us, in terms of learning how to live within our available resources, than we could possibly gain by shoving them aside to grow aviation fuel.

I think you've hit this nail on the head. Our biofuel hunting adventure is just another exercise in finding who and what to exploit next. There is little thought given to our own fuel junkie lifestyle and it's moral issues. As long as we can keep the habit going anything is fair game.

Hear, hear!

Balloons, I say! That should be our Hydrogen Transport solution..

I don't mind the idea of a bit of 'grow your own', or some harvesting of long rows along the highways and rail-lines.. but it's just inevitable that this gets seen as a new 'Play' for some industry to make a 'perfectly legal' stab at.. and grow fast and loose over those who can't say no.

well said.back to your comment about cow tongue and eggs a couple of articles back.believe it or not i had never heard that one.you do know that there are only TWO places in the world where you can get geniune ham ,right?

Alright.. I'm reverting to city-boy, here. Would that be left and right cheeks?

Point well made. I think we all agree here that it is possible to power jet Aircraft with biofuels but that BioFuel is not going to sustain it when the price of Jet fuel goes trough the roof when depletion hits proper.
I agree that the future for biofuel is for local use not fueling airplanes or SUV's. Jatropha can give small rural farmers the possibility to produce a diesel fuel substitute localy to power their small cultivatators, rotavators and prevent us sliding back to using only oxen/horses subsistenance farming. The processed oil has more uses and does not need to be kept and fed trought out the winter.

Spark-ignition engines fed by gasogenes can run on most anything combustible.  You don't need to go to the trouble of growing a seed crop you can press for oil, wood chips are sufficient.  It is also possible to gasify bio-oil to run an engine, and bio-oil can be made from many more feedstocks than just seeds; wood is a prime raw material, and I would bet that straw, corncobs and grasses are suitable if properly dried and pulverized.

Couple of comments:

the yields on jatropha, like any plant, are related to what you put into it. So while you can get a jatropha plant in dry barren areas, you won't get the yield you're looking for to scale up. So you wind up having to add water and nutrients to ensure you get the best yield.

Also, the meal is toxic to most animals and cannot be sold as animal food. the loss of that byproduct is huge.

And, it's an invasive species to most areas, so there will be resistance from environmentalists in many parts of the world.

About the fuel that was used, are you SURE it was actually raw jatropha oil? I've read things like "biofuel from jatropha oil", "jatropha oil" and "synthetic jet fuel produced from a proprietary process using jatropha oil as the feedstock". Please confirm that it was really just the oil mixed with regular jet fuel.

Sorry! I did not write this clearly enough. For the small villages in Africa and India they can use the raw fuel that they get from the plants - however if you are going to be using it as a jet fuel then you have to process it to biodiesel in the same way as with other vegetable oils.

The economics do not appear to be playing out well in India in regard to the establishment of large plantations, though the small scale (hedge-type) operations can operate on a scale where there is little environmental negative impact and some benefit locally. But when they try and scale this up, there are some stories that the yields obtained are inadequate. This story is from 2007, but it doesn't appear to be getting much better.

But the “green gold”, as the dark berry-shaped seeds that are crushed to help produce biofuel are called, remain very difficult to find.
“We will be lucky if we get 2,000 tonnes of seeds this year,” says Sarkar, the 36-year-old regional manager of D1 Oils Plc., a biofuel firm listed on  the  London Stock Exchange.

D1 Oils, in which BP Plc. has recently picked up 50% equity, has set up a 21,000 tonnes-a-year biofuel plant in the western Tamil Nadu town of Coimbatore in a joint venture with Mohan Breweries & Distilleries Ltd. . . . . . .

Last year, daily wage earner Santosh Yadav, who lives in Garka village in central Chhattisgarh, assisted in planting 4,000 saplings along a 2km stretch of the national highway known as Singanpur. Today, only half the saplings survive.
“We’ve heard these plants will give us petrol and diesel. But we can’t see it,” says Yadav, who earned an average Rs67 a day for the fortnight he worked through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS).

For the small villages in Africa and India they can use the raw fuel that they get from the plants - however if you are going to be using it as a jet fuel then you have to process it to biodiesel in the same way as with other vegetable oils.

I agree with you that jatropha has intriguing potential. However, to make jet fuel from it (or any plant or animal oils for that matter) it would be far better to hydrocrack it to green diesel. Biodiesel suffers from pour and cloud point issues at much higher temperatures than does green diesel. Further, the by-product of hydrocracking is propane, whereas in biodiesel production it is glycerol.


I agree on some points:
1) yields are input dependent and while you may see claims of high yields, there are not based on any commercial activity of an established plantation with accurate record keeping, rather extrapolation from select cultivars fruit production.
2) the meal from Jatropha seeds contains a lectin (curcin in this case) and phorbol esters, toxic stuff that the plant produces to protect itself from grazing. You may raise goats in a Jatropha field and they would never touch it. If ingested in certain quantities (if you could actually take the taste of the first seed), you may be inconvenienced, but case of deaths are very rare. These toxins may be extracted or neutralized by thermal treatment, but the quality of the nutrients suffers.
3) No straight Jatropha oil was used in the jet fuel blends - the oils have to be hydrotreated (e.g. UOP process) into hydrocarbons (no nitrogen, no oxygen no sulfur). The lower cloud point in the stuff might be obtained by reforming the straight molecules into branched hydrocarbons. The environmental advantage is that it is aromatic free, the annoying part is it is aromatic free and the jet engine seals need aromatics to keep from leaking.
4) There is no way we will replace all the jet fuel by vegetable oil derivatives: we would need to plant 250,000 ha of palm, collect, press the oil and hydrotreat the whole production of one year just to cover one day of world use.
5) Jatropha curcas is not invasive. The Australians have declared it so because mostly of the toxicity. I have seen Jatropha trees more than 25 feet high planted by the Portuguese and Philipinos in Hawaii. No growth observed anywhere else, except for washed seed saplings down a gulch. Since there is no animal eating this, there is no natural transport.

No straight Jatropha oil was used in the jet fuel blends - the oils have to be hydrotreated (e.g. UOP process) into hydrocarbons

As noted below in my note to Heading Out, hydrotreating/hydrocracking to green diesel makes far greater sense than converting to biodiesel.

Robert - is "Green Diesel" a coinage of yours, like "Peak Lite"? Googling the term I'm immediately directed to your piece R-Squared Energy Blog: Biodiesel, Green Diesel, and Jet Fuel, which links to another piece where you say you describe the difference, but I'm still unclear where the distinction lies, not that it can't be sussed out - could biodiesel refiners spend a bit more on a hydrotreater, or would that be absurdly expensive for them? Do biodiesel refiners make do with simple tranesterification processes? Bear with me as I'm not a biofuels guy, just curious about the economics at work here. Will do more homework when I have a chance, too. ;)

No, I didn't coin green diesel. I coined Peak Lite and XTL (to cover GTL, CTL, and BTL), both of which I have seen used here and there.

The distinction is this. Biodiesel specifically refers to the product from the transesterification process and is an oxygenated compound. Green diesel is chemically equivalent to petroleum diesel and is a hydrocarbon (no oxygen). Green diesel can be made either from hydrocracking oils or from the BTL process (gasification followed by Fischer-Tropsch).

Hmm, I'll check later but I believe Robin Mills uses "XTL" in his Oil Crisis Energy Myth book. Borrowing from the best!

Thanks for the clarification. Would it be feasible for biodiesel refiners to install simple hydrotreaters and produce diesel themselves instead of relying on petroleum refineries? Don't recall how high up the refinery evolutionary ladder they are. Perhaps Valero etc. will have an edge in this regard if green diesel gains market share.

I haven't read Robin Mills yet. I need to review that book, but I still have a pile I am working my way through.

If the biodiesel refiner wanted to make green diesel, they wouldn't go through the process of converting to biodiesel. They would just crack the oil directly. The disadvantage is that a hydrotreater is pretty expensive, whereas a hobbyist can produce biodiesel in their garage.

For biodiesel, you need veg or animal oil plus an alcohol like methanol (generally produced from natural gas).

For green diesel, you need veg or animal oil plus hydrogen (generally produced from natural gas).

In the tropical context, and if obtaining natural gas in the midst of oil price shocks risks an external finance constraint, the alcohol for biodiesel could be ethanol from sugar cane. What would be the source for the hydrogen, electric production power by, eg, hydropower?

Hydrogen can be made by reacting hot carbonaceous material with steam.  Nut hulls or inedible nut meal would probably serve as a carbon source.  FWIW, palm oil can be used directly as diesel fuel if it's pre-heated, no hydrotreatment necessary.

If you are just trying to power an engine and aren't fussy about existing fueling infrastructure, it probably makes more sense to sell the sugar and use sugar cane bagasse in gasogenes to run vehicles than it does to distill ethanol.

Some clarification is needed here.

Jatropha in its raw state cannot be used as jet fuel blended or not. It needs further processing to meet jet fuel stanadards. The technique used is moderate hydrotreating, not hydrocracking which is much more severe and costly.

When hydrotreated all veg oils pose some problems. Firstly the alkali and alkaline earth metals and phophorous act as catalsyt poisions and must be removed if processed in neat form. Secondly the olefinic double bonds when saturated give rise to exothermic reactions which have to be controlled.
UOP/Eni and Neste have a process for 100% veg oil hydrotreating, and Conoco and BP both have technologies for co processing veg/ animal oils with mineral oils in a conventional diesel hydrotreater which uses a poison resistant catalyst.

The hydrotreating of veg oils yields a hydrocarbon product of exceptional quality as a diesel fuel. There are no aromatics, no naphthenes, no sulphur and a very high cetane number of around 80 (compared with around 50 for FAME), making this product a premium high value blending component.The co- products are propane and carbon dioxide (no glycerine).Density, freeze and stability are such that they cannot be distinguished for conventional diesel.

Some hydrotreated veg oils will meet jet fuel stanadards particularly if isomerised to improve the freeze.

Currently the future for biodiesel is bleak, by that I mean FAME. I have never particularly liked this technology and neither have the major oil companies as it has many drawbacks, the biggest being the use of methanol, the production of which is highly energy intensive in itself. The finished product has many drawbacks:

1.Injector fouling- poor thermal stability. Useless for jet fuels.
2.Very poor cold flow performance in neat form.
3.Storage stability. potential to form gums and resins
4.Energy density much lower than mineral diesel
5.Density - much higher density.
6.NOX emissions higher than mineral diesel. Due to oilfines and oxygen
7.Viscosity- fuel pump issues.

EN590 limits FAME to 5% by volume. Although this is to be relaxed the OEM's are not happy and nor am I.Elastomers are a major issue with FAME- they swell with prolonged contact. Perhaps the worst effect of FAME is its polar nature which makes it surface active. Common product pipelines have proven a problem. Diesel with FAME has been found to contaminate the pipe walls making susbsequent products contaminated. Jet fuel has been found with above limits of FAME with all the potential consequences that this might entail.The problem of energy density is the old chesnut. Why carry the oxygen in the fuel when it can be obtained for free from air.

I work for a company that produces sodium methylate, amongst many other products. We do not see biodiesel FAME as having a long term future. Most likley it will remain a cottage industry made by locals, for local consumption.

Currently the future for biodiesel is bleak, by that I mean FAME.

Thanks for your post. Very informative. Agree 100% with your comment above, and have in fact written quite a bit along those lines:

Biodiesel's Green Diesel Nightmare

The problem is that the FAME guys lobby to have the biodiesel subsidy denied to the green diesel guys. That's what happened with COP (my former employer) and Tyson. The biodiesel guys screamed that it was unfair for the green diesel guys to get the same subsidy. COP said that they would lose money on the venture if the subsidy was denied. Congress said "Tough", and COP canceled the project:

Congress Kills a Biofuel Project

So, while I agree that green diesel will win out in the long run, the FAME guys are going to stall progress as long as possible. It isn't really about promoting renewable energy, it is about protecting vested interests. I suspect if cellulosic ethanol ever started to make inroads, the corn guys are going to do the same thing.

If one is looking to convert photons into "energy" the smallest number of transformative steps from photon -> "energy" should be the best.

That is why PV wins the photon to energy race.

The upside to jatropha is the trees can place deep roots, mine the sub-soil, and bring that material to the surface where many "food crops" grow. The downside is it is not a plant for northern (ok cold) areas. For colder areas a woody solution would be hazelnut brush.

Poppies (yea the opium ones) grow along the trans siberian railroad. (how did they get there? Think about the workforce of that day and some of the dynamics of that time) Now they don't have deep roots but they are annual so the rootmass can add some Carbon to the soil and help break up the hard soil so water can enter. Water and better soil makes for a better seed crop of course. Oh and no rational animal wants to consume the bitter plant so deer don't eat alot of the crop. Unless they are stoner deer. Oh and poppies grow on 'poor' and 'marginal' land. And they produce a food - poppy seeds.

My garden had a stoner chipmunk once. (regular poppies) Her babies were rather pitiful.

I think there are two issues with growing jatropha here and there on marginal lands:

1. Yields tend to be terrible, without fertilizer and water inputs.

2. There is no possibility of other than hand gathering of nuts if the trees without careful planning. (I am not sure how likely machine gathering of nuts is, even if trees are in straight rows on good land.) Hand gathering is a slow and labor intensive process. If you pay the labors anything, it quickly raises the price of the fuel.

But, as the hedge-growing shows, it can find a place in rural economies which run on a different metric.

I agree... referring back to what RR said above, green diesels would probably be preferable in a centralized industrialized economy, but I can see a role for Jatropha in the rural arsenal.

I wonder, among straight vegetable oil species, is jatropha any simpler to process than, say, canola? (I know, they wouldn't compete for the same land) That is, viewing this from a rural point of view, are the yields and drought tolerance worth any additional difficulties of harvesting and processing them?

Thanks for the update!

You don't have till and sow the crop every single year with the hedges, that alone would compensate for some minor conveniences elsewhere. Also may provide some habitat for some potentially beneficial insects and birds. Permaculture is generally a good idea.

Don't forget that canola has a high/higher requirement for sulfur - ie NPK and S needs to be added.

And a link.

Handbook of Energy Crops hosted at Purdue Uni.
Find the species name...

Jatropha curcas L.

This is excellent, thank you very much!

Assuming you never intend to improve the standard of life of those rural folk.

Post peak oil (a few years from now) many people in the OECD countries will have their unsustainable lifestyle lowered to one like these rural undeveloped countires have, rather than their lifestyle be raised to ours.

I think you miss the point. Getting rural African villages to where they have electricity is still an uphill struggle. Having plants such as Jatropha that can, through using local labor for harvest, and small scale machines make that transition is going to get them onto the bottom rungs of the ladder. It is still going to be a struggle, but it is one way up there!

Gail, You hit the nail on the head with the comment on harvesting. There is a reason this crop has not taken off. It is very labor intensive. The crop is continuous so the harvesting is also. Hand picked when ripe. Very time consuming.

Harvesting can be mechanized. There is just a trade-off on yields as harvest may pick fruits a various maturities. Most of the plantations (in the developing world) is tightly planted such that no machine can go and favors only hand picking.

I know very little about jatropha,but in general the yield of any crop drops off precipitiously as growing conditions deteriorate.The situation is pretty much analogous to the energy return on investment problem in fossil fuels.Yields decline as measured inputs decline but faster.For example you may get 150 bushels of corn with normal rain fall,but you will get a lot less than 75 bushels with half the normal rain.You might not get any grain at all,depending on when it falls,but you would still get some fodder-leaves and stalks.

The flip side of this situation is that as production of a cropsuch as jatropha is moved from the politically palatable "marginal land" to ordinary land yields go up fast.Exponentially fast,in relation to the costs per acre of growing the crop.

It is easy to see where this can lead.

It will be bad enough that the people living on and working this so called marginal land will be displaced if jatropha takes off. I fear it will much be worse if we get hooked on such crops.The less fortunate among us may not be able to afford food at some point even in the more prosperous countries if it comes down to a choice between cars and food.

Jatropha bushes planted closely in long rows are used as cattle enclosures in the Sahel and southern Sahara. They are also used as a fence around a village to keep out the desert wind, marauders, animal and human. My impression is that there is a lot of experience with this plant, but not among people in the money economy.

Jatropha is also known by the name "physic plant", and its fruit as "physic nut" - Not physics, but physic without the s, a very different word. When consumed, it has a pronounced cathartic effect on the bowels. It is distasteful to cattle, and possible even to camels. This is one of its characteristics that enables its use as fencing. If the cattle would eat it, they would just munch their way to freedom - but they don't.

It seems to me that the oil content is high enough that the villagers could use the oil in lamps for lighting, or heat for cooking, but I have never read that they do. Why? Maybe the labor of harvest is too great even for people who have an immediate use for the oil. (The Eskimo used whale oil for light and heat before they were civilized.) Or maybe they just cut branches for cooking fuel, and don't have a need for artificial light during the time that their tradition has reserved for making love.

I've seen photographs of the plant. It appears to be a dense tangle on interlocking branches, much like hedges in civilized suburbia. Mechanical harvesters do not work well on such plants. There is generally too much damage to the plant as the harvester tries to get at the fruit. But maybe ... robotics and computer vision ???

IMHO, jatropha is part of a future in which our descendants live more like the villagers of the Sahel do today than a future in which the descendants of the villagers have learned to submit to will and needs of the civilized world. E.g. jatropha hedge is clearly less energy intensive than steel fence posts and barbed fence wire for enclosing cattle, and energy issues are the big worry aren't they?

Rather than jet fuel, the real niche value of jatropha will surely be for localised production and consumption of diesel fuel, as is illustrated in Mali. Agricultural machinery, perhaps light trucks or bush taxis.
Homing in on sustainable, localised solutions.

Few Questions:

1) Will the plant grow in temperate climates?
2) How much oil (gallons) can one person produce per hour?

I was wondering about the 3% savings. One engine is running on flight fuel and the other is running on biofuel. Both engines would need to be perfectly balenced with respect to thrust or one will be a slave to the other. I guess my point is that no two pieces of equipment in parallel will run at the same thrust. Two boilers in parallel will not produce the same horsepower. I'm wondering if the biofuel engine was running sightly behind the flight fuel engine.

Hydrotreated vegetable oils (HVO) burn more efficiently than jet fuel, mostly because of the absence of aromatics - which require more energy to break. Such findings are consistent with test on methyl esters which, even oxygen in present in the molecule, delivers the same performance as conventional jet fuel does. The drawback might be that HVOs burn at higher temperatures, which generates more NOx.

One more attempt to save the failed paradigm. Save the cars! Save the jets! What about save the earth? Oh, I forgot. We don't need no stinking earth cause we are just that damned smart.

I wonder how much energy is consumed to produce the oil?

Why not expend your energy, time, and wealth relocalizing? That is where we are headed no matter what. The party in the cheap-energy techno cul-de-sac is about over. Where will we go home to if we destroy the only home we have.

True, why save the "Jet Age"? Give it a grave and be done with it before we all are in the grave. The question should not be, why not biofuel. The question should be, why jet aircraft. It is not needed, other than to satisfy the impotent male in BAU.

Relax, take a sailboat.

Relax, take a sailboat.

Arr! Ahoy mate! We can build a completely car less an jet less world.
We all work three days a week, or only when we have enough energy in our storage devices. We do this for 9 months a year and then sail around the world the for the other three remaining months.
Now that's what I call civilized! Oh and bring back the big airships of yore.

IMO, extracting oils from plants, while less energy intensive
than distillation also produces less fuel per pound of input (which is why corn is turned into ethanol and not used as a vegetable oil in cars).

Also it takes about a ton of seeds to make 100 gallons of oil, so there is a lot of potential waste products involved.

Most normal crops( except palm oil and Chinese tallow) produce
about 80(soybean) to 170 gallons(canola) per acre.

Ethanol produces +400 gallons per acre.

A better crop would be sorghum which is replacing corn as an ethanol feedstock in tropical countries. They get +550 gallons of ethanol per acre per year and EROI is about the same as sugar cane.

It's native to Africa(possibly two crops a year) and grows readily and is more drought-resistant.


I believe corn is used because it's a sugar source for fermentation, and oil crops are used because they are oil sources for various processes. In situations of scarcity, the question would likely be one of what the hardware available requires. If a poor farmer has a diesel tractor, I think he'd be more likely to grow an oil crop, while a rich farmer in a gasoline economy would be more likely to grow an ethanol crop.

I don't think it's appropriate to compare production per acre in terms of volume whilst leaving out energy content and the various inputs. Regardless, I think the underlying question here is: what is this biofuel for?

The rich farmer or the poor little ol' oil refiner?( the biggest companies in the US by far are all oil companies)

BTW, a diesel tractor can run on 100% ethanol.


A 1/4 acre of corn can produce 1/2 ton of stover and 1 ton of starch.

A ton of starch plus 1/4 of a ton of coal (or 1/2 ton of corn cobs) for heat (with equivalent BTUs for fertilizer) produces +650 pounds of ethanol(66 GGE) and 650 pounds of DGSS(animal feed).

Another type is the pyrolysis of a ton of cellulose into a #300 of bio-oil and 600# of charcoal. You can't burn bio-oil in your car but I guess you can take it to the refinery(80% efficient). You could bury the charcoal(bio-char) or take it the refinery for coking(50% efficient). Combining the two would net ~#540 of diesel(83 GGE).

There is no way biomass will ever be shipped directly to refineries and ethanol need not be shipped there.

The technology of turning cellulose into starches is proven, but expensive. Soon the enzyme costs will drop just as the cost of special catalysts for cracking at 1200 degrees has.

What is critical is the feedstock.

The biggest farms in the USA are corn farmers so it is the biggest feedstock at present.

If the biggest farmers were growing miscanthus or switchgrass, we'd have had cellulosic ethanol years ago.

Renewable energy standards, carbon taxes/cap and trade, and subsidies will move us off oil, just as the oil shock pushed Brazil into ethanol in the 1980s.

Again I suggest that Mother Nature makes it hard to grow more than a certain amount of lipids. High yielding methods like oilseeds are under constant attack from pests and disease. Post petroleum it may be difficult to obtain enough cheap agricultural chemicals to control these pests. For example in some areas canola can be decimated by the caterpillar of the diamondback moth. The financial and ecological cost of repeat spraying may be excessive. Untroubled by lack of evidence some will no doubt insist there is an organic way of eliminating oilseed pests.

A couple of years ago I planted several Chinese Tallow trees. The nuts are supposed to have both a wax coating and an oily flesh that can be stripped by hot water emaceration. Unfortunately they don't seem to grow well locally at Lat 43S or perhaps the unusually cool summer hindered their growth.

Therefore I'm inclined to the view that the best substitute for diesel in cars and trucks is probably compressed natural gas CNG. I believe lipids based liquids like methyl ester (biodiesel) or hydrogenated fat (green diesel) have less future than Fischer Tropsch liquid like Choren Sundiesel. Future carbon neutral jet fuel will have to come from FT biomass-to-liquids but the expense will prevent most people from flying.

I believe lipids based liquids like methyl ester (biodiesel) or hydrogenated fat (green diesel) have less future than Fischer Tropsch liquid like Choren Sundiesel.

I believe you are correct. And speaking of Choren, I have an announcement to make pretty soon involving them. It appears that our futures are on a collision course. :-)

You sure do get around, Robert.

Making sure you see the world before daddy takes the T-bird away!

(that might have sounded snarky.. definitely not intended that way.)


What can you tell us about durability issues running these new alternative diesel fuels in existing engines?

It seems that the ones currently available here(mainly virgin soy or canola blends or processed cooking oil mixtures) are ok,but what do we really know about jatropha,palm oil,etc,in this respect?

I probably won't see any of these oils ,but diesel engines are not cheap.Replacing the injector pump alone usually runs a couple or three thousand and up,and thats for reconditioned ,not new.

If your going to use CNG you can make biomethane

Biogas production from energy crops and crop residues (pdf)

Jerusalem artichoke, timothy-clover and reed canary grass gave the highest methane potentials of 2,900–5,400 m3 CH per ha, corresponding to a gross energy potential of 28–53 MWh and 40 000–60 000 km ha in passenger car transport.

According to An argument for using biomethane generated from grass as a biofuel in Ireland

Using ethanol produced from wheat, 3.9% of Irish agricultural land is required to produce 5.75% of transport fuel. Ethanol produces less energy from a crop, than the energy in the biogas generated when the crop is digested. The ethanol production process uses up to 60% of the produced energy in the final ethanol product. It is shown for compressed biomethane generated from silage that the total parasitic demand of the process is of the order of 25%.

...corresponding to a gross energy potential of 28–53 MWh...

This is a good example of why I favor biogas production. The lower end, 28 MWh/ha, is higher than the best ethanol yields you can get from corn on the same area of land. Further, it is less energy intensive to purify biogas than to purify ethanol, so the net energy yield for biogas is higher. Win-win.

By the way, your second link has a problem.

It may help to delineate several sources of methane
- natural gas usually about 80% CH4
- biogas from fermentation
- thermally gasified then methanated
- synthetic such as the Sabatier reaction.
All should be able to be blended if impurities like CO2 are kept to a minimum.

Catalytic conversion of thermal syngas to methane can use some extra hydrogen
(CO + H2) + 2H2 --> H20 + CH4. A possibility is using renewable or nuclear hydrogen in conjunction with organic carbon which is looped within the biosphere. Even if the practical net energy is lousy it might keep essential vehicles like ambulances on the road post oil. Meanwhile we could use wind and nukes to generate electricity not gas.

I think you'll find that large-scale production of biofuels is probably unnecessary.  If we need to "loop" carbon, we can get it from trash; ambulances and such will run just fine on batteries (Li-ion, Zebra, etc), perhaps with biofuel-powered sustainers for those times when they have to go beyond battery range.

According to An argument for using biomethane generated from grass as a biofuel in Ireland

Using ethanol produced from wheat, 3.9% of Irish agricultural land is required to produce 5.75% of transport fuel. Ethanol produces less energy from a crop, than the energy in the biogas generated when the crop is digested. The ethanol production process uses up to 60% of the produced energy in the final ethanol product. It is shown for compressed biomethane generated from silage that the total parasitic demand of the process is of the order of 25%.

"....The latest news is that to get high yields, huge water inputs are needed--20,000 liters of water to produce one liter of biofuel. This news will further make scaling up oil production from jatropha difficult."

The study refered to in the highlighted article did no testing, just surveyed rainfall amounts and amount of jatropha oil produced, then the authors projected the water needed to improve the crop yield. Sounds like typical MIT bullsh*t.

No empirical methods used.

After getting some "hard" data relating actual water application (rain or irrigation) and actual crop yields for various scenarios of cultivating the plant, then make a judgement on how well jatropha fairs. Until then don't believe these modelling exercises that are based on very sketchy data.

Jury is still out on Jatropha.

I have been involved with a biofuels project in the Republic of Congo, and we looked hard at Jatropha.

Our market goal was to produce fuel for local consumption as fuel prices are very high in the interior of the country.

That a fuel can be used locally should be seen in a positive light - where that is true, the highest needs are being met first. Only after local consumption has reached a threshold and local development has taken place can the next stage really take hold. There is a huge amount of latent demand that will spring up no matter where biofuel is produced in undeveloped countries, and this should be embraced, not seen as a problem.

In our project, we ended up chosing oil palm due to the incredible productivity, suiltability to the available land and climate, the fact that it can double as a food crop, and lack of competition with ecosystems. However the choice was not obvious because the high productivity comes with a price of lower quality. High FFA content, impossible to use palm oil as SVO unless highly refined,etc.. Jatropha, to me, seems ideal to use as a crop for local demand. It can be used directly, the plants can serve a useful function. The only main detractor is that unlike oil palm, it cannot double as a food source because it is highly toxic.

I have never heard of intercropping of Jatropha with other plants, and I don't know if that is appropriate, but might be worth investitgating. Oil palm requires an undercrop to cover the ground to at least 30cm, but direct sunlight is thus limited for the undercrop.

And yes, if there is actually going to be biofuels production on a scale that makes a difference to current fossil fuel export demand, then I agree with Robert that it will very likely come from large scale processing of bulk biomass, not just from oil seeds. I see local demand and export demand as separate issues, and I think the answers will also be different.

On a separate note, I just returned from a three month trip to Iran. While there I was able to speak about world oil production and specifically mentioned the Export Land Model to several people. I am waiting to hear back from one petroleum economics professor, and then I will post a summary of what I have leanerd. My basic premise is that the world desperately needs stability in oil markets to allow better stewardship of resources and to foster development of alternatives. For this reason, I hold that it is time for OPEC to move to a combination of fixed price AND fixed production, and that OPEC can now act with the boldness needed to make this work. More later on that.

Tyan in Seattle

Test... trying to figure this out

the people who picked $70/barrel first won the poll

I do not understand why a localized solution needs to solve a global consumption to be considered valid. A medium size diesel tractor uses pints per hour in light duty such as cultivating. Why not limit these solutions to appropriate uses.

So Who bells the cat? (as in 'Limit these solutions)

'Limit' is the operative verb in your post.. this fuel, like many of the proposed biofuels would become a large industry business model, and the resources they require would be ACQUIRED to make them happen. Like wind or palm oil.. it might be perfectly fine on a small farm.. but if you want to blanket the Steppes and the Alleghanies with them, there will be some proportionate problems.. likely even some disproportionate ones.

Trade barriers due to financial system collapse should bell that cat nicely.

People act locally using the resources they have once they realize that they can't trade common goods halfway around the world.

Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic flew a 747 a year ago with some coconut oil partially filling one of its tanks. Virgin lauded it as the beginning of sustainable biofools. Then someone in the press quickly ran the numbers and found that an entire year's world coconut crop would only fuel all aircraft departing Heathrow for a single morning once a year. Even with every coconut in the world, there wouldn't be enough fuel for any other airport, for arriving flights, or for more than few hours of Heathrow's departing flights. The plan was literally nuts!

Suppose you were stranded on a desert island. The ability to refuel with coconut oil will get you home.

How do you get up and into the plane, though?

First, Imagine we have a can-opener, and a ladder!

Click your heels three times Coco(nut)....I mean Toto.

Coconut oil also turns to butter around 25C

I saw some TV footage of straight filtered coconut oil being used in a diesel vehicle on Vanuatu. As they headed off I wondered if a 20C cold snap would freeze their fuel lines and they wouldn't make it back.

An interesting parallel with ethanol is the animal feed byproduct. The leftovers from oil extraction called copra makes a good feed additive with a mild but gritty butterscotch taste. It should be soaked in water as it swells to 2-3 times the dry volume and could cause intestinal colic.

Jatropha = throw in the trash as jet fuel. Those poor people should have cheap food rather than give vacation thrills to us rich. Sorry. Humanity likes posts from 'heading out' because he tells the truth.

Curious if anyone can tell me the answer to what maybe the real question here.

Are plants more efficient in converting sunlight into energy than manmade technology?

For example if you put mirrors on an acre of land and convert the sunlight to heat thence
to electricity do you get more energy than you would growing a fuel crop especially if the fuel crop requires significant manmade inputs such as fertilizer, irrigation, tilling the soil etc.

Biofuels don't cut it

Electric cars are about four times more energy efficient than fuel based cars. This is because fuel engines mostly creates heat and thus wastes the majority of the energy units available. Combine this with biofuel plants not being very efficient solar energy harvesters relative to semiconductor based solar electricity, and the result is this huge difference.

Follow the link to see the graphic.

Thanks, pretty convincing graphic though I am not certain a plug in electric car has ( at this time) all the advantages. The waste heat from a ICE comes in handy during the winter months in cold climates as does the spare horsepower for running an A/C unit in the summer. Still I'm with you on the superiority of a plug in electric vehicle.

Problem is a lot of jobs would be lost if we
had an all electric car fleet. Jiffy Lube, Midas Muffler as well has a whole host of radiator, water pump, ignition specialists would find their franchises going the way of farriers and saddlemakers.

Without doing any numbers, my WAG is that man made technology is more efficient. If you have ever watched a plant grow you will understand. A simple solar water heater with about 1m square collector area will do a much better job of heating water than ANY plant generated biomass grown on the same area by a long shot. So much so that it probably makes up for the energy embedded in the SWH from it's materials and production.

Alan from the islands

Island Boy,

I suspect you are correct although I have not researched the question. As long as you stick to heat there is little doubt,but once you switch to say electricity for instance and start taking into account the losses involved converting biomass to electrons versus pv there are so many variables to consider the question is debateable.Grass grows pretty good on a rainy day and the right varieties will grow in deep shade.Otoh,a pv works best on a zero day in bright sun.

One thing is for sure,and that is that airplanes fly higher and faster than any bird,big telescopes
"see" farther better than any eye,and chainsaws cut down trees faster than any beaver.

The historical trend suggests that renewable energy tech will soon out produce bio energy on a per acre basis when the circumstances are favorable if it does not already.

This is not the same thing as being more economical or practical than bio fuels.

Darwinian or one of the other engineering types will know w/o needing to look anything up.

Thanks for this informative article. While jatropa can be one piece of the energy puzzle, it certainly seems relegated to a minor role.

20,000 liters of water to produce one liter of biofuel.

Not much hope for high productivity levels outside of tropical rainforest areas. And what is required to replace the soil nutrients on a yearly basis?

time to see the planes fall away
i hate noise anyway

say goodbye to the travelling high
it ain't coming back onto the track

anyone who raises my food prices
or fucks the planet up more
to even the score
so they can keep flying
is gonna find a bomb under their bed
when they get back from the
latest red-eye flite

we are so lucky
that people are easy to kill

solar is a sham
wind is a scam
nuclear makes good bombs
fusion makes good pork
oil is almost gone
coal is full of mercury
but aren't those humans already mad as hatters?
tides bring nice rocks
and show the shellfish's cocks

plastic recycling is a scam
you can burn it to cook your ham
just like the third world does today
so you will do tomorrow

let's bust up the earth till she screams
in reams and reams of black seabreams

a roil of oil full of delicious spoil
milk chocolate from the rocky womb
squeezed out by a drill-dick

people just want to be happy
but i am here to tell them that they aren’t going to be happy
i am here to tell them that the world’s gonna be a shithole real soon

they will be homeless, jobless, busted, in jail or dead soon
90% of the world’s fish are extinct
the planet is almost dead already
humans will soon be killing each other over the last scraps of food

there will be no rescue
there will be no divine fucking intervention
there will not be a ‘better day’
better days already passed long ago

there will be ‘worse days’, and ‘worser days’ after them
there will be killing, murder, rape, rape of children, killing and eating of children
on a scale not yet seen before
don't worry about dogfood
your dog will soon be food
there will be acts committed that we don’t even have words for yet
and that will be just the beginning

just the beginning of a new deathlife for the survivors
their own private horrorshow filled with coming attractions

Newbie question... So I'd like to think about becoming more self sufficient. I live at 47 degrees latitude (Pacific NW, USA). Solar PV, ovens and hot water heaters are out due to the cloud cover. Tropical plants are out due to the cool summers. There isn't a lot of wind either. Lots of water and fruit trees thrive. I suppose, so would wheat-like plants.

What would you experts suggest someone up here do with a few acres of land and an interest in keeping a light truck and maybe small cultivating equipment running after "the peak". I would only be interested in supplying personal and local needs. I could give a rodents behind if jet engines get fueled (in fact I'd like to see them stop). It doesn't sound like it makes sense planting anything that requires chemical processing, high temperatures or fancy catalysts because getting regular supplies of those inputs would be rather problematical.

Thoughts anyone?