Jatropha: Not a Miracle Biofuel Crop After All?

By Eliza Strickland | June 9, 2009 3:34 pm

jatrophaThe oil-rich and weedy plant jatropha has been hailed as the most promising source of biofuel on the planet, and one airline has already begun testing a jatropha-derived fuel in its jumbo jets. But a new analysis suggests that the plant may not be a miracle crop destined to solve all our energy problems: Current jatropha plantations are not realising the oil yields that drove the “Jatropha euphoria” [EcoWorldly].

It was previously thought that the hardy jatropha plant would require less water than other biofuel crops like sugarcane and corn and could grow in marginal soil, so growers wouldn’t have to take fertile land out of agricultural use. But the new study rebuts that assumption. “The claim that jatropha doesn’t compete for water and land with food crops is complete nonsense,” says study coauthor Arjen Hoekstra. The researcher says it’s true that the plant can grow with little water and can survive through periods of drought, but to flourish, it needs good growing conditions just like any other plant. “If there isn’t sufficient water, you get a low amount of oil production,” Hoekstra says [Technology Review].

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that making a single liter of jatropha biodiesel requires a whopping 20,000 liters of water to grow…. That’s more than canola, corn, soybeans or sugarcane — more, in fact, than any commonly used biofuel crop. The two closest, canola and soybeans, require about 14,000 liters each [BNET].

Still, some researchers note that jatropha is a wild plant that hasn’t yet been crossbred to maximize its yield of poisonous, oily seeds, and say they believe that jatropha will mature into a better biofuel producer. Any plant new to cultivation takes a period of time before it reaches an optimum tame form, and jatropha has only been in use for a few years. There are also companies like SG Biofuels … that are performing gene research on jatropha in hopes of extending its range and improving its yield [BNET]. Others suggest that jatropha can continue to fill a niche in the developing world, since turning its seeds into biodiesel is a straightforward process that doesn’t require a huge capital investment.

Related Content:
80beats: Air New Zealand Tests Jet Fuel Made From Poisonous Jatropha Seeds
80beats: Poisonous Seeds Can Be Turned Into Jet Fuel
80beats: Biofuels or Cheap Food: Do We Have to Choose?
DISCOVER: The Second Coming of Biofuels

Image: flickr / edwardyanquen

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Biofuels are probably not the answer.

    Oils are hydrocarbons. Hydro from water, carbon from air. All plants photosynthesize, where they break CO2 into sugar via the cation interchange. Anyway, my point being that input=output and you can’t get more out of a plant than you put into it.

    And, I mean, seriously, 14,000 liters of water for a single liter of fuel? That’s completely ridiculous from a sustainability standpoint – we need that water to live with, not drive with.

  • Dennis

    It is a wild plant still. So comparing it to crops that have been under development for thousands of years is a bit unfair.
    If it can grow in areas that are not currently farmed it has potential.
    Bio-fuels do work. Look at Brazil. But their sugarcane is a much better plant than anything we have.
    I have issues with US corn ethanol. It is government regulation to help the “family farmer”. Archer Daniel Midland……
    However, I feel bio-fuels do have a bright future.

  • http://deleted zach

    Can’t feel too hopeful about biofuels. As Nick says, the water-to-fuel ratio is ridiculous.

  • Kirk

    It appears that people like comparing apples to oranges. Jatropha requires only a fraction of the input costs of other feedstocks, including water. In addition, to be fair, we need to review the entire lifecycle of the plant; from soil to combustion. This plant: is undomesticated, has a fraction of the land cost of food crops, yield (already higher then soy and canola) and a fraction of the inputs to get that yield (look at soy and canola). Finally, the FAO reports that there are 400m hectares (1m acres) available for rain fed crops.

  • http://www.super-science-fair-projects.com Energy Science Fair Projects

    Finding the next fuel source for humanity is big business. If you are a young scientist you can help further the search for new energy sources by conducting your own experiments and developing energy science fair projects that test new biological and renewable energy sources.

  • Dayanidhi

    There are so many drawbacks in using Jatrpha for bi-fuel production. There are evidences and established facts that, bio-fuels are in use extracted from edible oils. But, in India, what will be the next alternative to fossil fuel consumption.
    May I request you to provide the original papers and informatin on Jatropha.
    dayanidhi Mishra
    Scientist, Krishi Vigyan Kendra,
    Orissa University of Agriculture & Technology,
    Barchana, Jajpur

  • http://www.rcpgd.ukzn.ac.za Hafiz

    My personal experience with oil extraction is claiming that the seed oil content is more than 40% out of 2500 sample I tested. So I think this plant need a little bit of attension and simultaneously support from the international environmental orgnizations to susidize research on all aspects of plantation of this plant.

  • Don Stookey

    Interesting water balance analysis. How do the various plant types and oil routes compare on yield of biofuel on a carbon dioxide uptake basis? After all, the stated objective is the carbon balance and cycle. What good is a lot of carbon captured in the plant stalk that likely decomposes into a good bit of methane that is reportedly 20 time worse than carbon dioxide regards global warming? Would it not we be better off with a bio syngas route to biofuels that would use total plant, not just the seed/fruit? The syngas route should eliminate methane and only releases unconverted carbon in the form of carbon dioxide?
    Dr. Donald Stookey
    Chesterfield, MO USA

  • http://www.super-science-fair-projects.com Energy Science Fair Projects

    While this experiment in natural energy development was a failure, doesn’t mean that there isn’t some crop that will be effective and efficient to produce. Kids, you can help find such a plant based fuel by working on energy science fair projects.

  • atanu acharya
  • Dr.Syamasundar Joshi and Dr. Shantha Joshi

    Here is a TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPED IN THE UNIVERSITY OF AGRICULTURAL SCIENCES, BANGALORE, which can readily solve the problem in the production of First and Second generation of biofuels at global level, in a span of 20 years, that too in a sustainable way. This technology can also address food security for poor, small scale, resource-limited farmers including women. Simarouba cultivation improves soil fertility by adding organic matter to the soil. Introduction of this rainfed water prudent tree crop acts as a supplement to the regular income and helps in retaining the crop diversity. This technology can be easily adopted to surmount hunger problem at individual as well as at global level. It is a low budget agriculture technology suitable for ecologic farming and does not require intense training. It addresses the problems of biofuel generation, hunger, poverty and agricultural production in many poor countries of the tropical world. The visionaries in NCB, FAO, WHO, ICRAF, CGIAR and other organizations have to recognize the importance of this technology and implement it systematically and effectively to usher evergreen revolution.


    THIS WORKABLE SYSTEM CAN BE EASILY ADOPTED EVEN IN AFRICAN COUNTRIES AT GLOBAL LEVEL. This versatile tree can be easily grown as an intercrop along with the traditional annual crops without decreasing the regular annual food production. Once established, this ecofriendly tree showers following benefits on growers every year for more than 60 years, irrespective of erratic rainfall. 1. The seeds give about one ton good quality edible oil worth about Rs.30,000/ha/year. 2. The surplus oil produced can be easily trans-esterified and converted into biodiesel (FIRST GENERATION BIOFUELS) to take care of the very much needed energy requirements. 3. The oilcake (one ton/ha/year) with about 8% nitrogen is good organic manure that can fulfill the fertiliser requirements of the farmers. Its money value is about Rs.10,000/ha 4. The fruit pulp with about 12% sugar can produce as much as 10,000 liters of beverage/ha/year. The waste fruit pulp also can be gainfully employed to manufacture ethanol (to blend with petrol) (FIRST GENERATION BIOFUELS). The agricultural waste (biomass) such as shell, unwanted branches, and leaf litter (about 15 tons/ha) can be easily used to produce SECOND GENERATION BIOFUELS. This carbon neutral technology is perfectly sustainable and for the production of biofuels there is no need to destroy the virgin forests. Instead these trees help in preserving the forests since the pressure on the demand for wood is easily met by the fast growing Simarouba. 5. The leaf litter is relished very much by earthworms and it can be used to produce vermicompost or compost of about 10 tons/ha/year worth Rs.30,000/ha. 6. From about 500 trees in a hectare the farmer can fell about 25 trees every year and sell for about Rs.25,000/- as it is good timber as well as fuel wood. 7. APART FROM THESE MONETARY BENEFITS, THE DECOCTION FROM LEAVES OF THE TREE (HARVESTED IN A SUSTAINABLE MANNER) IS PROVEN ANTIVIRAL, ANTIBACTERIAL, ANTIAMOEBIC, ANTIMALARIAL, ANTIHELMENTIC, ANTIULCEROUS, ANTITUMOROUS, ANTICANCEROUS, ANTILEUKEMIC. THIS ENABLES THE POOR VILLAGERS TO HAVE EASY ACCESS TO CURE MANY HUMAN AND LIVESTOCK AILMENTS WITH ALMOST NO FINANCIAL BURDEN. 8. Cultivation of this tree as an intercrop without disturbing the regular food production gives an additional financial benefit of Rs.50,000/ha/year every year without fail, irrespective of the vagaries in rainfall. Thus, it gives stability at microeconomics level to the poor farmers. 9. A nation like India with about 140 million ha of land (dryland and wasteland put together) can easily attain self sufficiency in the production of edible oil, biodiesel, organic fertilisers, vermicompost, timber, just in a matter of two decades and attain stability at macroeconomics level. 10. To establish one tree it requires just Re.one only, that is Rs.500/ha, to an actual cultivator. The gestation period is about 5 years and it attains stability in production by about 10 years. 11. Its cultivation helps in establishing industries concerned to the production of first and second generation biofuels, edible oil, vegetable butter, margarine, lubricants, soaps, shampoos, other cosmetics, beverages, electricity, thermal power generation, timber, pharmaceuticals etc. at village level and thus helps in creating income generating green jobs to crores of villagers. This gives livelihood to about 30% of the population.12. This evergreen tree cultivation helps in preventing soil erosion, improving ground water position, combating desertification and checking greenhouse effect and global warming. 13. AFTER ATTAINING ECONOMIC PROSPERITY, THE VILLAGERS MAY BE ADVISED TO ESTABLISH THEIR OWN STANDARD EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS AT THE RURAL LEVEL INVITING THE DEDICATED AND EFFICIENT TEACHERS TO IMPART BEST EDUCATION TO THEIR CHILDREN. THIS WILL AUTOMATICALLY SOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF POPULATION EXPLOSON AND THREATENING POLLUTION. The additional money generated at the rural level may also be wisely invested in developing infrastructure such as water supply, sanitation, incessant electricity supply, medical facilities, transport etc. ALL THESE RESULT IN ECONOMIC SECURITY, FOOD SECURITY, BIOMANURE SECURITY, HEALTH SECURITY, FUEL SECURITY, POWER (ELECTRICITY) SECURITY, EDUCATIONAL SECURITY, EMPLOYMENT SECURITY AND ENVIRONMENTAL SECURITY AT THE RURAL AND GLOBAL LEVEL. This discourages villagers from migrating to urban areas. No wonder if reverse migration begins to take place from urban to rural areas in due course of time. References: Google search: Simarouba glauca cultivation; Simarouba medicine; Simarouba glauca – Wikipedia; Simarouba Bangalore Mirror. Contact address: Dr. Syamasundar Joshi and Dr. Shantha Joshi; 23, R.B.I. Colony, Anandanagar, Bangalore; Mob:(0)94486 84021; E mail joshi.sim@gmail.com

  • http://fat-smash-diet.net Fat Loss

    Hi there, I found your blog via Google while searching for first aid for a heart attack and your post looks very interesting for me.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar