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Have you heard of jatropha? I admit it: I hadn’t. But I read something recently about how jotropha was the hot new biofuel. So I did a little googling today and discovered I must be living under a rock because jotropha is everywhere.

In case you’re like me and not so current on hip biofuels, jatropha is a tree that produces seeds that are packed with oil and are potentially very efficient sources of diesel fuel. Here are some of the reasons it’s attracting so much interest:

  • It grows well in marginal soil
  • It can survive for months without water
  • It burns quite cleanly and the jatropha trees capture carbon, so it’s comparatively good for the environment
  • It can potentially produce a lot more fuel per acre than other biofuels like corn and soy
  • It is a perennial tree and therefore doesn’t have to be replanted each year
  • The seed pulp left after the oil has been pressed can be used for fertilzer and formed into briquettes for other uses
  • Unlike corn, jatropha is not edible and therefore is not diverting the food supply into fuel
  • It can grow in places like Africa, India, Mexico, and Central America, creating a possible industry for places that badly need it and allowing diverse fuel suppliers

Sounds fantastic, right? But there are some downsides:

  • While it can live in marginal soil and without water, it won’t necessarily produce well in those conditions
  • Parts of the plant are highly toxic and there is concern over harvesting and processing it safely
  • Currently, harvesting would have to be done by hand, making it a labor-intensive fuel.
  • While it doesn’t directly divert a food crop, if it proves profitable, people might replace crops with jatropha (see Burma)

So, nothing is certain, but it appears jatropha is well worth more study, and investors are on board. Especially since Air New Zealand used a blend of jatropha and diesel to fly a Boeing 747 jet last year. In my mind, even if jatropha doesn’t turn out to be the best new fuel source on the planet, the research and experimenting that’s going on is really encouraging. It take us farther along the path of finding fuel sources that are relatively inexpensive, clean, renewable, and accessible for some of the poorest places on Earth. What can be more hopeful than that?

If you’d like to know more, here are some of the places where I learned about jatropha today:

Reuters UK