Jatropha: From Haitian Voodoo to Biodiesel Holy Grail

Jatropha is a nondescript and rather ugly desert shrub, but its appearance belies a huge potential as a major source of oil for biodiesel production on land that doesn’t compete with food crops — and the whole world is taking notice.

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Jatropha has the potential to produce 4 times the amount of biodiesel as soybeans and 1.5 times the amount of even a dedicated oil crop such as canola. This alone has been enough to make people sit up and take notice, but jatropha’s true beauty lies in the fact that it can be grown on literal wasteland — land that has been left for dead with little rainfall, poor soils, and a harsh climate.

Bayer CropSience has done a significant amount of research on jatropha and found that the shrub doesn’t produce nearly the amount of biodiesel as oil palm does (click on chart to the left for a larger copy).

But oil palm has some serious problems to overcome before becoming a truly viable and environmentally-friendly biodiesel crop — including deforestation, habitat destruction, and biodiesel quality, to name just a few.

Additionally, jatropha can be grown in a much wider range of climates than oil palm. Virtually the entire continent of Africa has the potential to grow jatropha — representing a huge source of rural income for many poverty-stricken countries around the world (click on the map below for a larger copy).

As the August 2008 issue of Crops, Soils & Agronomy News (paid subscription) points out, jatropha requires almost no care and very little water. It is inedible to animals so does not require precautions such as fencing. Also, for better or worse, it is currently unharvestable by machine and so has the potential to create long-term jobs in the agriculture sector.

Another major benefit of jatropha is that, due to its ability to take hold in harsh wastelands, it can be used to help stop erosion in these areas and reclaim them for agricultural production. As highlighted in recent issue of National Gegraphic, loss of soil by erosion on land that has fallen to waste is one of the most serious problems for the future of world food supply.

Much still has to be done to turn jatropha into a truly cultivatable plant, but already countries like India are thinking ahead to a time when jatropha can solve many of their fuel and energy needs by setting aside wasteland solely for the purpose of jatropha biodiesel prodcution.

Having begun it’s relationship with humanity as a tool to release dead souls in Haitian voodoo rituals, jatropha has surprised everyone with just how much more potential it has to help the world out.

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Image Credits: Bayer CropScience

Source: The Guardian

 

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.