Saturday, November 12, 2005

Europe Adopts Biodiesel, can an african bean crack europe's blockage?

Editor's Note: Jatropha is an example of a plant that could be grown even if it didn't yield biofuel. It is useful for restoring soil, combatting desertification, and providing fertilizer. It requires minimal inputs of water and grows in extremely poor soil.

Any plant that is a cash crop anyway and costs almost nothing to grow can't be a bad candidate for an economically viable biofuel. Distilleries for biofuel exist throughout the world; biofuel is a form of solar energy harvested from the land, and wherever land and water are abundant, biofuel is cheap and the flow never wanes.

In Africa, India, Asia and the Americas, Jatropha is one of the most promising feedstocks in what is becoming a worldwide biofuel bonanza. Europeans are planting and investing in Jatropha fields in all these places and elsewhere. One company in the U.K., D1 Oils based in London, has built a portable Jatropha biodiesel refinery. Such an innovation is an example of how the potential of biofuel is just beginning to be tapped. - Ed "Redwood" Ring

The potential to run engines on biofuel goes all the way back to Rudolph Diesel's successful trials using peanut oil a century ago.

Yet it is only now, with the transport sector likely to be the fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions this century, and diesel prices climbing steadily as oil appears scarcer and less secure, that the advantages of biodiesel are being appreciated by governments around the world. However, there is as yet no source of biodiesel that is cheap and plentiful enough to meet the potential demand. Running trucks on used cooking fat from fast food outlets is not going to be a large scale option.

However, across the developing world there's growing excitement about the possibility that an up-to-now obscure tree, Jatropha Curcus, might offer a sustainable, large scale source of biodiesel. This non-edible shrub is planted as a hedge in both Africa and India, and its beans are used as a laxative in traditional medicine. When crushed the beans produce oil that can be refined into biodiesel.

According to the International Energy Association, the use of oil, including diesel, for road transport will double in the next 25 years and greenhouses gases will increase commensurably. In the EU, legislation is already in place to mitigate this by increasing the proportion of biodiesel in Europe's transport energy mix. The EU biofuels directive requires a minimum level of biofuels as a proportion of fuels sold in the EU of 2% by 2005, 5.75% by 2010 and 20% by 2020. The main green fuels will be ethanol and biodiesel, and demand for biodiesel is expected to be up to 10.5 billion litres by 2010.

If that demand can be met, it will be good news for the environment and for our general health. While combustion of any fuel releases CO2 into the atmosphere, biodiesel produces lower emissions than mineral diesel. Furthermore, because it comes from crops that absorb CO2 as they grow, biodiesel's overall contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is extremely low. A 1998 biodiesel lifecycle study, jointly sponsored by the US Department of Energy (USDE)and the US Department of Agriculture, concluded that pure B100 biodiesel reduces net CO2 emissions by 100 percent compared to petroleum diesel. With a B20 mix (a 20% bio-diesel solution), the net CO2 emissions are reduced by 20%. Compared with mineral diesel, biodiesel reduces particle emissions (PM) by 30%, carbon monoxide (CO), which affects air quality and human health, by 50%, and sodium monoxide (SOx) by 50%. Unlike mineral diesel, bio-diesel is non-toxic and is biodegradable.

The EU biofuels policy currently relies on an assumption that the heavily-subsidised cultivation of rapeseed will meet its biodiesel targets. However, this is a very large assumption. Already some 3 million hectares of agricultural land across the EU, an area roughly the size of Belgium, grows 10 millon tonnes of rapeseed. But since just 20% of this is ultimately used for biodiesel as opposed to food oil, another whole Belgium would have to be covered in the yellow rapeseed blanket to meet the targets. Rapeseed tires the land, and requires expensive crop rotation and fossil-based fertilisers. Growing rapeseed also has an opportunity cost of preventing farmers from growing more environmentally-friendly, less intensive, and often more profitable produce such as cereals or organic root vegetables. Under these circumstances, the supply of rapeseed oil is unlikely to be able meet the demand.

One UK-based company, D1 Oils plc(, has put itself at the forefront of efforts to fill this gap with Jatropha oil. Jatropha grows quickly, is hardy, establishes itself easily even in arid land, and is drought-tolerant, requiring only 300mm of annual rainfail. It grows especially well in South and West Africa, and South East Asia. Jatropha can even be grown on semi-arid land using waste water, making it a useful tool in the prevention of desertification. Each Jatropha tree can produce an average of 3.5 kilos of beans each year depending on irrigation levels. According to D1's estimates, if 2,200 Jatropha trees are planted per hectare, each hectare could yield up to 7 tonnes of beans per annum. Jatropha beans can produce oil yields of up to 40% and D1 expects each hectare to deliver about 3,000 litres of biodiesel.

In the established process for refining biodiesel, the vegetable oil is esterified, reacted with methanol and sodium hydroxide, to produce diesel and glycerine. D1 has adapted this method to create its own proprietary process producing biodiesel from Jatropha and various other feedstocks. The Jatropha biodiesel meets the European EN14214 standard for use as a pure or blended automotive fuel for diesel engines.

D1 has already secured plantation agreements in Burkina Faso, Ghana and the Philippines totalling 37,000 hectares, and has the option to extend planting to approximately 990,000 further hectares of land in Burkina Faso and 5 million hectares of land in India. The company recently raised £13 million in a London Stock Exchange flotation to fund these initiatives.

According to Philip Wood, Chief of Executive of D1 Oils, the company is on the way to delivering enough Jatropha biodiesel to meet EC demand. "We have created a unique business model and put in place the right mix of technology, IPR and contracts, as well as a strong team, to deliver results and grow the business. With a total of 6 million hectares under option, roughly the same size as two Belgiums, we could be producing 18 billion litres of biodiesel, which at current estimates would meet demand expectations in Europe."

However, the demand for biodiesel is not coming solely from developed markets. One of the main reasons for the excitement around Jatropha is that developing countries also want their own biodiesel blends for domestic transport and power generation, both as a substitute for expensive oil imports and to prevent pollution. The President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, recently welcomed the biodiesel initiative undertaken by D1 in West Africa, saying, "By producing our own biodiesel, we will gain greater energy security, save valuable foreign currency, and potentially become an exporter of biodiesel."

The potential for local demand for biodiesel as well as for export has been anticipated by D1 Oils. According to Philip Wood, the company has structured its production technology to offer developing countries small refineries that can produce biodiesel close to the plantations. "Our small, economic, modular refinery is easily transportable, produces minimal emissions, uses virtually no water and can be powered in remote locations by its own biodiesel," says Wood. "In addition to our refinery in Newcastle, the first of its kind in the EU, we have plans to provide modular refineries in India, the Philippines and South Africa."

The D1-20 refinery can produce up to 8 million liters of biodiesel per annum, equivalent to approximately 22,000 liters per day. It is housed in a container that is 3.3 meters wide, 10 meters long and 4 meters high, and the overall refinery systems can store 24 tons of vegetable oil, 25 tons of catalyst and 20 tons of biodiesel.

The benefits for the developing world go further than producing fuel for local use. Since the planting, growing and refining of Jatropha seeds requires manpower, its cultivation will generate large numbers of jobs in areas of low employment. Errol Elsdon from PetroSAF, an African fuel distribution company, estimates that Jatropha plantations are likely to create at least one job for every four hectares of planted trees; the total impact on agricultural employment alone could be huge. There are also other benefits in terms of both byproducts from the esterification process and from the potential for intercropping. The biodiesel refining process also produces profitable by-products such as glycerine for cosmetics and seed cake for fertiliser and animal feed, and Jatropha can potentially be intercropped with other valuable plants such vanilla or patchouli.

However, it is Jatropha's ability to grow on marginal, waste or arid land and produce energy crops without displacing food crops that is perhaps of most potential importance to the developing world, particularly as they face the affects of climate change. This aspect of Jatropha has made it particularly attractive to the Indian government. Given India's booming economy, its transport sector will consume ever higher amounts of fuel over the coming years. Indeed, demand for diesel fuel is expected to grow from current levels of 44 million tonnes to 67 million by 2010. Aware of these predictions, the government of India has a $300m biofuels programme in place which foresees India replacing 5% of current diesel with biodiesel by 2005/6, eventually rising to 20%. However, the Indian government is also aware of the environmental benefits of growing the tree on marginal and arid land. In a recent speech, the Indian President, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, declared that "India needs to grow Jatropha to tackle dry land and generate biodiesel." India has large areas of poor quality land ideal for the cultivation of energy crops, so growing Jatropha won't divert land away from growing vital food crops.

D1 Oils is currently in discussions with the Indian government to see how it can help India meet its biodiesel targets. According to D1 estimates, for India to reach its target of 20% bio-diesel mix, some 2m hectares of Jatropha will be needed. With this target in mind, D1 has been working with the Tamil Nadu agricultural university on research into Jatropha and large-scale planting and has put forward proposals to plant Jatropha in the states of Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. D1 has also entered into a joint venture agreement with India's Mohan Breweries to operate and control future projects in the region. A pilot scheme of approximately 5,000 hectares has been established with Mohan and planting is anticipated to be completed during early 2005.

Developing countries are also aware that as the mechanisms of the Kyoto Treaty come into force to reduce industrial and commercial greenhouse gas emissions, the planting of biofuel crops may well create carbon sinks that can earn them cash through their sale of emissions credits to polluting industries in developed countries. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) created by Kyoto is still in its infancy. However, if CDM credits do become available for planting trees, it could add a further inducement to plant Jatropha to act as an energy-producing carbon sink.

The history of the commercial contacts between the developed and the developing world has not been smooth, particularly in the sphere of agriculture and energy. However, the fact that Jatropha requires a warmer climate than we have in Europe could enable it to make a very positive impact on the environments and economies of developing countries. Money, as the old adage goes, may not grow on trees, but a possible energy solution clearly does. In today's world of mounting fossil fuel prices and concern about global warming that could amount to the same thing.



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