Does Jatropha Still Deserve To Be A Green Fuel Option?

From the time it first made an impact, the Jatropha plant, or more precisely, its seeds, have occupied mindspace as a serious alternative to fossil fuels. But success at scale has been elusive. Is it time to give up on this 'bio-fuel'?

Jatropha or more locally Jangli Arandi had all the right ingredients to become the saviour from the fossil fuel dependency. It could directly be mixed with diesel, increase efficiency of the oil to 11% higher than diesel, It could grow in the most unforgiving landscape—dry, semi arid and fallow land with a welcome indifference to water scarcity.

All these attributes proved an irrisistible to the government, driving it to support cultivation in a big way in India. In fact, so high was the optimism on this ‘green gold’ that the country’s bio fuel blending targets were predicated on productivity of this wonder plant.

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Lack of Roadmap

Both the Centre and states had identified jatropha as “ the most suitable tree-borne oilseed(TBO)  for biodiesel blending at scale.  India, following some African countries and China went into overdrive and identified 400,000 square kilometers (98 million acres) of land where Jatropha could be grown, hoping it will replace 20% of India’s diesel consumption. But all the hype is dead today, as decades after being first grown for oil, volumes remain miserable.

Another fallacy in the plan was the low yield. What everyone forgot that Jatropha when cultivated, rather than be seen as a weed, needed to thrive, rather than survive. To deliver volumes,  the oil bearing fruits turned out to need water just like any other plant to produce more seeds.

“As jatropha is a resilient crop, it was planted on unproductive soils. Though the plant can survive droughts and infertile soil, it can’t produce many seeds under those conditions. To get a good harvest, it needs nutrients and water, just like any other crop,” says Charmaine Sharma, partner at Observing-i Ecotech LLP, Gurugram-based green technology firm. Even its gestation period of four years cannot be considered “low”.

Therefore, this cash crop will indeed compete for resources like land, water and nutrients with food crops. Which bring us to its ecological impact. The Jatropha plantations also led to environmental problems. In Andhra Pradesh, they led to acidification, ecological toxicity, eutrophication and water depletion.

Finally, you had the issue of logictics. Bio-diesel , for obvious reasons, needs to be taken to a refinery for blending. Jatropha production on the other hand, was targeted at backward districts with poor infrastructure,   driving up the cost of transportation logistics. Another nail in the coffin, when it comes to viability.

Under the National Biodiesel Mission, launched in 2009, Jatropha and pongamia (Millettia pinnata) were planted on 500,000 ha over five years with a cost of Rs 1,500 crore. Though petroleum companies signed memoranda of understanding with states to establish jatropha on government-owned wastelands; the three state owned oil marketing companies—Indian Oil Corporation, Bharat Petroleum Corp- oration and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation—shut down the joint ventures they had started for jatropha cultivation to manufacture biodiesel.

That explains India missing its biofuel blending deadlines and now, even the revised target—5 per cent blending by 2030—looks ambitious given the lacklustre progress so far. Biodiesel blend in 2017 was less than 0.12 per cent “mostly due to limited feedstock availability and lack of an integrated and dedicated supply chain”. To expand the market by 2022, India needs 6,750 million litres of biodiesel and 4,500 million litres ethanol per annum. Government data shows ethanol production in 2017-18 was 1,410 million litres.

Read: Biofuel sector. A waiting game

A glimmer of F(light)

On 27 August, 2018,  low-cost commercial airliner SpiceJet tested its first ever biofuel based flight. With this, Spicejet became the first Indian airline to use biofuel for a demonstration flight. Soon after at that, this year’s 26th January celebration had a greener flypast. The Indian Air Force flew an aircraft operating on aviation turbine fuel blended with 10 percent biofuel for the first time at the Republic Day Parade. The Aviation sector has caught the fancy of Biofuel. Sustainable plant-based bio-jet fuels could provide a competitive alternative to conventional petroleum fuels.

With an estimated daily fuel demand of more than five million barrels per day, the global aviation sector is incredibly energy-intensive and almost entirely reliant on petroleum-based fuels. Unlike other energy sectors such as ground transportation or residential and commercial buildings, the aviation industry can’t easily shift to renewable energy sources using existing technologies.

So the Jatropha story isn’t quite finished. However, Jatropha’s commercial future could hinge on plant science. Scientists are studying this tree and are now selecting plants that produce more seeds, breeding high-yielding varieties, turning it from a semi-wild plant into a real crop. Perhaps, after many years of such breeding, it will become as productive as corn or palm trees, but if the cost remains higher than diesel, then the viability issue will remain. All in all, not exactly the fuel you need to be betting on.

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