Jatropha: Miracle Biofuel?

The New York Times today (Sept. 9), has a story on the increasing cultivation of jatropha, a potential source of biofuel, by farmers in Mali, where the plant has long been used as a natural fence in the country:

. . . a plant called jatropha is being hailed by scientists and policy makers as a potentially ideal source of biofuel, a plant that can grow in marginal soil or beside food crops, that does not require a lot of fertilizer and yields many times as much biofuel per acre planted as corn and many other potential biofuels. . . .

Poor farmers living on a wide band of land on both sides of the equator are planting it on millions of acres, hoping to turn their rockiest, most unproductive fields into a biofuel boom. They are spurred on by big oil companies like BP and the British biofuel giant D1 Oils, which are investing millions of dollars in jatropha cultivation.

World Politics Review called attention to jatropha in a July report by Carmen Gentile on Haiti’s energy problems (see also this video report).

The Haitian government “is relying on privately funded research to introduce alternatives such at jatropha curcas, a hearty seed-bearing plant already grown in India and Africa for use in lamps and stoves,” reported Gentile:

Once planted, the jatropha curcas needs little moisture and can thrive for up to 50 years, even in poor soil conditions like those in Haiti. Livestock and other animals won’t eat jatropha after it is three months old, and the plant begins bearing seeds needed to make fuel after nine months, yielding anywhere between 6 and 12 tons of fuel annually per hectare. In comparison, soybeans used to make biofuels yield less than one ton per hectare.