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Oil & Gas

Jatropha tree examined as a biofuel alternative

June 24, 2009
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What some see as the biofuel of the future starts out as short, thick stems with a few leaves sticking out at sharp angles. But in just a few years, they will be tall, leafy trees with bright green spherical pods spilling their seeds all over the ground. According to the Associated Press, the jatropha tree doesn''t have the name recognition or lobbying clout of corn-based ethanol, but the energy industry is increasingly spending development dollars and examining it as a potentially better biofuel source: It is easier to grow than corn, untied to the food market and free from any carbon dioxide or sulfur emissions. Biodiesel from jatropha has powered test flights on Air New Zealand and Continental Airlines. It has prompted oil giant BP PLC to partner on jatropha projects in India and Africa. On Florida''s Gulf Coast, one jatropha company, My Dream Fuel, believes in the trees with such fervor that it calls them the eventual solution to the country''s oil problems. But skeptics consider that hyperbole, saying there are still too many questions. The trees cost $6 to $7 each, can be grown 400 to an acre, and produce more than two gallons of oil apiece each season at maturity. Still, it would take a farm about the size of Rhode Island to produce a billion gallons -- and the U.S. economy uses more than 50 billion gallons of diesel annually. My Dream Fuel said it is in negotiations to sell trees to growers in the Big Cypress National Preserve, and environmentalist efforts to reduce cargo ship emissions could open up Florida''s maritime market through the Port of Miami. But the company has had trouble convincing Florida growers of the viability and profitability of its vision. Even citrus farmers, who have lost much of their crop to disease and cold, aren''t willing to take the risk on something new. The resistance they face reflects skepticism within the fuel industry and academia whether jatropha is the savior its growers claim. Jennifer Holmgren, general manager of renewable energy and chemicals for energy technology firm UOP, which provided the fuel for the airlines'' test flights, said jatropha may be the latest biofuel buzzword, but the energy industry must remain objective and look at multiple fuel sources. It''s important to find a fuel source that works with the current infrastructure, Holmgren said. For anything, including jatropha, to be widely used, it needs to work in the current pipeline system, which ethanol does not. And jatropha is only usable in diesel engines. So far, jatropha has grown mostly overseas in India and Africa.
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