Jatropha curcas The Green Gold


Ruchi Soya Industries Ltd recently signed an agreement with the Indian Oil Corporation Ltd to undertake Jatropha plantation over 50,000 hectares of land in the districts of Jhansi and Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh. The company said that alternate fuel sources will have to be exploited to meet the growing fuel demands of India in particular and the world at large.

Jatropha, or the wonder weed as it is popularly called, shot into prominence some 7-8 years back for its astounding abilities to survive drought conditions, thrive on acrid land and yet yield amazing quantities of fuel that could be put to use without any processing.

It wasnt long before a mad rush to buy waste lands across the world broke out.

The search for an alternate fuel has strengthened in the last few years amidst growing concerns based on the rapidly drying up conventional sources of energy. Various experiments are underway around the world to find an alternative for the time when we would have exhausted all fossil fuels. Nuclear fuels, hydrogen, nitrogen, even water has not been spared the machinations of discerning scientists in their search for the alternative to coal, oil and gas that could power the technologies of tomorrow. Jatropha weed is one such probable source of fuel that has gained popularity over the last few years. On hindsight, its rise to popularity is natural, given that fuel from the weed might easily turn out to be the cheapest to produce.

What is Jatropha?

Jatropha curcas is a poisonous scrub weed belonging to the euphorbia family and is believed to have originated in Central America. It is touted as a bioenergy crop that grows in marginal, eroded land, and is resistant to drought. Hence, it is not expected to compete for land that could grow the more important food crops. Another factor adding to its popularity is that it doesn’t require a lot of water or fertilizers and pesticides, quite unlike corn, oilseed rape, soybean, sunflower and other food crops that are usually diverted into biofuel production.

Jatropha is a non-food plant, which is believed to start producing seeds within 12 months of planting, with maximum productivity level achieved in 4-5 years. According to research, the plant remains useful for around 35-50 years and its seeds can produce around 37% oil content. Its kernels can produce up to 60% oil content. The plant is said to produce up to 12-20 tonnes of oil per hectare. Add to it the fact that it considerably reduces polluting emissions and one can rightfully assume to have landed a formula to make green gold. Here is a plant that promises boundless oil supplies to drought-ridden countries.

Jatropha and India

Not unnaturally then, one can consider Jatropha to be a blessing in green coating to the hundreds of farmers saddled with several hundred hectares of arid, semi-arid and non-arable lands. Taking cognizance of the fact, in 2003, Indias Planning Commission recommended a national mission on biofuel, a two-phase project for wide-spread cultivation of Jatropha on wasteland across much of India.

The committee on development of BIO-FUEL presented its report that recommends a major multi-dimensional programme to replace 20% of Indias diesel consumption. One of the objectives was to blend petro-diesel with a planned 13 million tonne of bio-diesel by 2013, produced mainly from non-edible Jatropha oil, a smaller part from Pongomia. For this end, eleven millions hectares of presently unused lands are to be cultivated with Jatropha.

Jatropha curcas is considered most suitable for this since it uses lands which are largely unproductive for the time being and are located in poverty-stricken and watershed areas and degraded forests. Jatropha is also planned to be planted under the poverty alleviation programmes that deal with land improvements.

Additionally, scientists at Central Salt and Marine Chemical Research Institute (CSMCRI) at Bhavnagar recently discovered a microbe from Indian waters that can manufacture bio-degradable plastic using a by-product of the Jatropha plant. CSMCRI has said that it successfully made bio-degradable plastic from glycerol, a side-stream product of Jatropha found during the process of bio-diesel extraction from the plant’s fruit.

Jatropha Fever

India is not alone in the research to tap most effectively into the potential of this rather versatile plant. China, Netherlands, Germany, Israel, Belgium and Italy are some of the other countries involved in Jatropha research. China, which claimed to have 2 million hectares of Jatropha already under cultivation, has plans to plant an additional 11 million hectares across its southern states by 2010. Neighbouring Myanmar (Burma) has plans to plant several million hectares; and the Philippines, as well as several African countries, have initiated large scale plantations of their own.

As per reports, the total land under cultivation for Jatropha was estimated to shoot up to 21 million hectare in 2014 from over 720,000 hectare in 2008 with an achievable total potential of around 30 million hectares.

D1 Oils, a UK-based biodiesel producer and the worlds largest commercial Jatropha cultivator is responsible for around 81,000 hectares of Jatropha plantation in Chhattisgarh and in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, with plans for an additional 350,000 hectares over the next few years.

According to media reports, some of the best-known business houses, including Indias largest private sector company Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), is the race for planting this green gold in the South Asian country. The company plans to set up the countrys first biodiesel refinery in Andhra Pradesh at a cost of around Rs. 700 crore. (Source: Media Reports)

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