VIEWS: A Biofuel Star is Born

Dispatch from SSC Intern Elizabeth Vayda

When many people think of biofuels, they think of corn ethanol combined with oil (E85). Though the direct usage of E85 results in fewer emissions than oil alone, using corn as a source of fuel requires copious amounts of water for irrigation, fertilizers to ensure yield, as well as fossil fuels to grow the corn in the first place. I would like to direct the attention to one of the lesser known alternatives to corn ethanol: jatropha. Jatropha has been named the future of biofuel. I first learned of the jatrophra plant while reading Lester Brown's book, Plan B. Brown discusses how jatropha (which begins as a relatively small shrub and grows into a tall tree) is currently being grown in places with warm climates like India and Africa as a form of biodiesel.

What does Jatropha offer that other forms of biofuel do not?

For starters, it's incredibly low-maintenance, and can grow in poor, low-fertility soil along roads or other non-developed areas. In addition, jatropha needs little water, is drought and pest resistant, has seeds containing 40% oil, grows quickly, does not require refining, can be intercropped with other high-demand crops (like sugar and coffee), and can live for up to 50 years. Jatropha trees can grow 400 to an acre, at $6 or $7 per tree. In comparison to the intensity of growing corn ethanol, jatropha is much more environmentally and socially sound. The problems that arise with mass-producing corn as a biofuel simply disappear with jatropha production. Problems like the ones concerned with heavy fertilizers, degradation of once good soil quality, food vs. fuel debates, or mass quantities of water used for irrigation.

Would Jatropha work as a fuel alternative in the U.S?

If certain measures are taken, then yes. Jatropha only works in diesel engines, meaning that America's current transportation infrastructure would need to be revamped. Currently the demand and supply of jatropha is low, meaning that its cost is still relatively high. With greater demand, those costs would steadily decrease. Also, as it's considered a "wild plant," its yield is still unpredictable and disputed; however, a February 2009 Time Magazine article entitled, "The Next Big Biofuel?" estimated that one acre could yield 1,600 gallons of biodiesel per year. According to a recent article in the Associated Press, some estimate that jatrophra may have yields higher than soy or corn.

Sham Goyal, an agronomy scientist at the University of California, Davis, said the plant has "very good potential" but that it would take at least five years to determine its commercial viability in the U.S., especially since jatropha can only grow in warmer climates.

Also U.S. farmers would benefit heavily from a crop that has such a high estimated yield. With the average salary of corn or soy farmers in the U.S. being $18,000 per year, along with the pressure to take out substantial loans in order to constantly update their facilities, our farmers need a break.

Read the entire Associated Press news article here.