We all know that a big factor in global warming is all the hot air expended by the members of the US Congress during their lengthy posturing and debating on Capitol Hill. And this week the big word was
How do we know? Check out Capitol Words, the terrific new website developed by The Sunlight Foundation.
Instead of searching for data-driven solutions, most of the rhetoric is advocating for special interests associated with the home districts of the various Senators and Congressmen. Drill for natural gas off the coast of Virginia, say Senators John Warner (R-VA) and Jim Webb (D-VA). Start a crash program to build new nuclear reactors, says Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Convert plant and animal waste into methane, says Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN). Provide more support for “clean coal” technology development, says Senator John Barrasso (R-WY). We should support corn ethanol, say Senators Norm Coleman (R-MN) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). Support responsible development of wind farms, say Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Barack Obama (D-IL), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND).
So what about jatropha? No one is saying much about it because none of the states in our country currently have a reason to advocate for it. But based on data, rather than special interests and political comforts, it is something our Congress should be talking about. A good first look at jatropha is provided by Diligent of Tanzania Ltd. Jatropha is a member of the cactus family that produces oil-bearing seeds. Not only is the high volume of oil in the seeds suitable for fuel, the biomass pulp residue left over when the seeds are crushed can also be converted to energy. The plant is eminently survivable and cost-effective. Consider the facts:
- The seeds are poisonous and therefore self-protecting
- The plant is highly pest-resistant
- The plant is drought resistant
- The plant will grow in wasteland — sand, even gravel — and does not compete for space with food crops
- Seedlings have an 80% survival rate
- Plants are long-lived, up to 50 years
- Plants are excellent at controlling soil erosion
- Seeds can be harvested within three years of planting
- Seeds have 40% oil content
And as if all these fine qualities were not enough, jatropha has the property of restoring soils depleted by food farming.
The London Times ran a good article on jatropha last year:
Poison plant could help to cure the planet
The jatropha bush seems an unlikely prize in the hunt for alternative energy, being an ugly, fast-growing and poisonous weed… Very soon, however, it may be powering your car.
Almost overnight, the unloved Jatropha … has become an agricultural and economic celebrity, with the discovery that it may be the ideal biofuel crop, an alternative to fossil fuels for a world dangerously dependent on oil supplies and deeply alarmed by the effects of global warming….
Whereas other feed-stocks for biofuel, such as palm oil, rape seed oil or corn for ethanol, require reasonable soils on which other crops might be grown, jatropha is a tough survivor prepared to put down roots almost anywhere.
Scientists say that it can grow in the poorest wasteland, generating topsoil and helping to stall erosion, but also absorbing carbon dioxide as it grows, thus making it carbon-neutral even when burnt.
Carbon neutral! Can it get any better? Other parts of the world are catching on. In about two years, the first jatropha-fueled power station may begin supplying electricity in Swaziland. Two years ago, the authorities in Myanmar began urging local farmers to grow jatropha plantations “to help find a way out of the oil crisis.” The Institute of Science in Society reports that “the Indian Railways have started to use jatropha oil blended with diesel to power its diesel engines with great success.” And one year ago The Manilla Times announced plans to build the country’s first jatropha oil processing plant. One year ago British Petroleum and London-based D1 Oils formed a joint venture to develop jatropha plantations in India, Southern Africa and South East Asia. The United Nations has a joint venture with China for $8.5 billion to expand Chinese jatropha cultivation from 66,000 acres to 660,000 acres.
Headquartered in Monheim, Germany, Bayer CropScience, a leader in crop protection, non-agricultural pest-control, seeds and plant biotechnology, began a program to support jatropha cultivation last year. Coordinately, Daimler outfitted three Mercedes cars for jatropha biodiesel. To date, these cars have logged some 30,000 kilometres successfully. Researchers at Daimler noted that jatropha “already fulfills the EU norm for biodiesel quality.” Archer Daniels Midland is also supporting this project.
Indian trains, German cars, … and New Zealand planes! Just this month the Los Angeles Times reported a project to fly a plane on jatropha oil:
Jatropha plant’s oil studied as jet fuel
The easily grown weed’s product could be a third of the cost of crude and doesn’t have the environmental drawbacks of ethanol. Air New Zealand plans test flights in the fall.
By Peter Pae | June 5, 2008
If all goes well this summer, an Air New Zealand 747 jumbo jet will take off from Auckland this fall powered by fuel refined from the seed of a fast-growing weed.
The three-hour test flight could mark one of the more promising — and more unusual — steps by the financially strapped airline industry to find cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuel.
“We’re confident that the test will go well,” said David Morgan, Air New Zealand’s general manager for airline operations, before leading visitors to a farm here where the weeds are being researched. If the flight is successful, “it’ll be a real milestone not only for Air New Zealand but for aviation.”
The secret: oil from poisonous seeds of the jatropha tree, which grows in warm climates around the world….
While it is native to equatorial regions, jatropha apparently isn’t too fussy about locale. Portugese explorers brought the plant to Europe, where it survived nicely and became known as a remedy for constipation and acne. In the United States, as a minimum, Texas has a suitable climate for jatropha cultivation, and as we all know, Texas is BIG. And at least one pilot project was proposed there.
There is some movement in the US private sector. This past March, Wyoming incorporated Amelot Holdings announced the formation of a subsidiary, Jatropha Biofuel Technologies, Inc., to “offer a truly integrated approach, which will include all aspects of Jatropha research, development, and cultivation, including extracting technologies of Jatropha oils and the processing of high grade biodiesel.” Founded in 2001, Colorado-based Blue Sun Biodiesel is pursuing several development avenues, including their previously referenced proposal to the DoE to develop a pilot project in Texas. Jatropha has also begun to catch on in Florida:
New biodiesel crop Jatropha taking off in S.W. Florida
The roots for a new energy crop in Southwest Florida have been planted.
In LaBelle, a company called My Dream Fuel LLC is cultivating Jatropha curcas, a tree-shrub that shows promise as a new biodiesel crop in the U.S. that could one day power engines and generators.
Nearly 1 million seedlings are in the ground at a nursery in Hendry County and promoters are looking for farmers – here and across the country – to raise them as oil-producing plants.
Researchers say the plant can produce four times more fuel per acre than soy, and 10 times more than corn.
It is high time we started paying more attention to jatropha here in the United States, and as long as our government is going to throw around earmark money, this would be a good target.
Nancy Matthis is the publisher and executive editor of the weblog format news magazine and multimedia outlet American Daughter Media Center.