Power play: Lowly shrub grows in stature as a bio­fuel

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY MARK KELLNER

A plant that some have scorned as a preda­tor might well turn out to be part of the an­swer to ris­ing fuel bills for con­sumers.

Ja­t­ropha cur­cas, a poi­sonous, semi-ever­green shrub that can grow as high as 20 feet, pro­duces seeds laden with oil that back­ers say is an ideal bio­fuel. One com­pany that main­tains 194,000 acres of the plant un­der cul­ti­va­tion in In­dia is look­ing to ex­pand farm­ing, and fuel pro­duc­tion, in the United States.

Mis­sion NewEn­ergy, an Aus­tralian-based firm with op­er­a­tions in In­dia and Europe and a re­cently opened branch in San An­to­nio, says it can de­liver re­fined Ja­t­ropha oil at about $40 to $50 a bar­rel. The firm’s U.S. en­try also in­cluded list­ing its shares on Nas­daq, com­ple­ment­ing its Aus­tralian Stock Ex­change pres­ence.

Mixed with tra­di­tional jet fuel, Ja­t­ropha oil al­ready has been used on test flights by Con­ti­nen­tal Air­lines, Air New Zealand and other car­ri­ers. Once ap­proved for gen­eral use, Ja­t­ropha could help cut one of the avi­a­tion in­dus­try’s high­est costs.

Ja­t­ropha can pro­vide “en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble fuel with­out com­pro­mis­ing the food sup­ply, so we can help the Earth while help­ing the pub­lic,” said James Gar­ton, pres­i­dent of the firm’s U.S. branch. “That means we can fi­nally re­verse the sky­rock­et­ing prices at the pump and de­pen­dence on tra­di­tional sources of oil.”

The race for the next big thing in bio­fu­els is at­tract­ing se­ri­ous in­vestor at­ten­tion. Ja­t­ropha is seen as a lead­ing can­di­date along with such ri­vals as al­gae and camelina, a flow­er­ing flax­like plant that, like Ja­t­ropha, can grow in mar­ginal agri­cul­tural lands.

Ja­t­ropha has been touted as among the most promis­ing bio­fuel sources, but it is not with­out prob­lems.

In a study re­leased last month, a team of re­searchers at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy looked at the ef­fi­ciency of Ja­t­ropha and more than a dozen other pro­posed bio­fuel sources. Ja­t­ropha scored well as a fuel source and be­cause the plant’s husks, shells and meal could be used as fer­til­izer and other in­dus­trial pur­poses. Some of that gain, how­ever, is off­set by pro­duc­tion and re­fin­ing costs and the need for land to cul­ti­vate the plant.

“You can’t say a bio­fuel is good or bad, it de­pends on how it is pro­duced and pro­cessed, and that’s part of the de­bate that hasn’t been brought for­ward,” James Hile­man, who teaches in MIT’s Depart­ment of Aero­nau­tics and Astro­nau­tics, said in a state­ment ac­com­pa­ny­ing the sur­vey, which was pub­lished in the jour­nal En­vi­ron­men­tal Science and Tech­nol­ogy.

Mis­sion NewEn­ergy said it is linked to its pro­duc­ers via con­tract farm­ing agree­ments in more than 15,000 vil­lages across five In­dian states. Those op­er­a­tions, the firm said, are pro­vid­ing sus­tained em­ploy­ment for more than 140,000 pre­vi­ously im­pov­er­ished farm­ers. It takes three to four years to get max­i­mum yield from a Ja­t­ropha plant, with a 20-year pro­duc- tive life es­ti­mated for most plants.

Us­ing a bio­fuel such as Ja­t­ropha in an in­dus­try such as avi­a­tion has its ap­peals.

At the end of May, two in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives briefed con­gres­sional staffers on a re­port about the use of bio­fu­els in the U.S. avi­a­tion in­dus­try. Speak­ing with The Wash­ing­ton Times by phone af­ter the event, the ex­ec­u­tives noted the need for bio­fu­els as a way to help meet the ris­ing cost of jet fuel. A 1-cent in­crease in the price of jet fuel rings up an ex­tra $175 mil­lion in costs for U.S. air­lines, re­ports in­di­cate.

“Fuel is our sin­gle big­gest cost. To­day, fuel costs 47 per­cent more than it did last year. That’s a pretty big spike for your sin­gle largest cost,” said Keith Love­less, vice pres­i­dent of cor­po­rate and legal af­fairs for Seat­tle-based Alaska Air­lines. “We are look­ing for all sorts of al­ter­na­tives,” he added.

Added Billy M. Glover, en­vi­ron­ment and avi­a­tion pol­icy vice pres­i­dent at Boe­ing Com­mer­cial Air­planes, “It’s not a mat­ter of one [bio­fuel] feed­stock be­ing bet­ter than oth­ers. It’s go­ing to take a port­fo­lio of feed­stocks, a port­fo­lio of pro­cess­ing meth­ods. [. . . ] [T]o get to scale and make bio­fu­els vi­able, you need feed­stock op­tions and a va­ri­ety of pro­cess­ing meth­ods.”

Ja­t­ropha is be­ing de­vel­oped in Ghana, Tan­za­nia, Peru and other na­tions such as In­dia; a com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor is the ef­fort to grow the plant in ar­eas where other crops aren’t eas­ily cul­ti­vated. Some en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have said Ja­t­ropha has been over­hyped and that op­ti­mal oil pro­duc­tion re­quires ini­tial ir­ri­ga­tion and fer­til­izer that other­wise would be used for food pro­duc­tion, a con­di­tion sup­port­ers say would af­fect only the short term.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in the south­ern African nation of Namibia late last month put the brakes on plans for large-scale Ja­t­ropha plan­ta­tions in the coun­try’s north­east, cit­ing the need for more study on the po­ten­tial dis­rup­tive im­pact on food cul­ti­va­tion, landown­er­ship pat­terns and a loss of ac­cess to com­mu­nal prop­erty.

Pa­trick M. O’Brien, a re­tired ex­ec­u­tive of the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s Eco­nomic Re­search Ser­vice who is now con­sult­ing for Mis­sion NewEn­ergy, said Ja­t­ropha could find a do­mes­tic pro­duc­tion base in an area ex­tend­ing “from Texas around the Gulf Coast up to South Carolina,” al­though not too far north be­cause of frost con­cerns. The ar­eas where Ja­t­ropha could be grown do­mes­ti­cally in­clude some where farm­ers might reap prof­its.

PHO­TO­GRAPH PRO­VIDED BY MIS­SION NEW EN­ERGY

Ja­t­ropha seeds yield as much as 40 per­cent oil that has been touted for use in diesel ap­pli­ca­tions and re­fined into avi­a­tion-qual­ity jet fuel.

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