Will This Weed Really ‘Save Humanity’?

Here’s my nominee for quote of the day, from a (gated) front page article in today’s Wall Street Journal:

“This plant will save humanity, I tell you.”

The person who said that is O.P. Singh, a horticulturist for the railway ministry of India. What plant is he talking about? A shrubby weed called jatropha, whose seeds contain an oil that Singh and others believe may power the biofuel revolution. Here’s how the Journal‘s Patrick Barta puts it:

With oil trading at roughly $70 a barrel, this lowly forest plant is suddenly an unlikely star on the world’s alternative-energy stage. The seeds from jatropha’s golf-ball-size fruit contain a yellowish liquid similar to palm oil that can be made into biodiesel … But unlike other biodiesel crops, jatropha can be grown almost anywhere — including deserts, trash dumps, and rock piles. It doesn’t need much water or fertilizer, and it isn’t edible. That means environmentalists and policy makers don’t have to worry about whether jatropha diverts resources away from crops that could be used to feed people.

Barta’s article also includes some Goldman Sachs data on the estimated cost per barrel of fuel made from a variety of sources:

Cellulose: $305
Wheat: $125
Rapeseed: $125
Soybean: $122
Sugar Beets: $100
Corn: $83
Sugar Cane: $45
Jatropha: $43

The article makes it sound as though jatropha is certainly a comer, especially compared to palm oil and corn. FWIW, this is not the first time that optimistic news about a biofuel “that might help save the planet” appeared on this blog.

Maybe it is time for the prediction market at PopSci.com to add a jatropha market, and/or to expand its Energy and the Environment market to offer betting on the future success of individual fuel sources, as it now does with ethanol.

Mike Roddy

I question the $43 per barrel cost of jatropha, but there is a more critical issue: if the plant's preferred habitat is forested areas, then primary forests will be clearcut in order to set up jatropha plantations.

Clearing larger plants that sequester carbon more effectively in order to make room for jatrophas will result in a major net contribution to CO2 emissions. These calculations contain data fluctuations, depending on the motivations of the researchers, but by using IPCC criteria it is clear that removing large woody biomass is just as catastrophic as powering vehicles with gasoline.

This is not as widely known as it should be, in spite of the Stern Report, due to the influence of the timber industry, especially in the US.



Vincent Amato

This is the biggest lie of the modern era--the notion that creating synthetic fuel or food or anything else will "save the planet." It's a naked emperor phenomenon--or a poisoned well--you pick your metaphor. We don't need more fuel to create more cars and factories; we don't need more food to feed more people; we don't need more anything--especially people. It is overpopulation and overuse of a delicate global environment that will eventually kill us.


hmm x 2


Tell me more about this "rape seed"...


Wow, those GS numbers are unbelievable - they are talking about a barrel of fuel, not crude which means gasoline would be at maybe $100 or more... The numbers look off, on the low side. If cellulose produce alcohols is only $300 some a barrel now, with a bunch of technology just being developed, it is obviously the long term goal. We will likely see 2x reduction of costs of that from technology in the pipeline now. You could take ag waste for that, along with your Jatropha - after squeezing the oil out. The numbers would make me very optimistic, they seem way to good (ignoring the Jatropha number, even).

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

“This plant will save humanity, I tell you.”

Wait a minute, what ever happened to:
"Bread! Bread! The Staff of Life!!!"

(Oh yeah, now I remember: that bread bit was from a Carol Burnett Show skit. Oh well).


How many square miles you have to grow this plant on in order to produce 5,178,000 barrels a day? (U.S. crude oil production as of 2005)


In regards to the concern of tearing down forest to grow this plant:

"India, by contrast, has millions of acres of wasteland that isn't fully utilized due to low water tables and infertile soil. Jatropha advocates figure the crop can cover much of that area without causing environmental distress."

The biggest risk with this plant is that it won't be economically viable:

"jatropha's biggest advocates concede the plant's oil output is unpredictable and often lower than expected. Although it can grow without water, it tends to do much better when water is added, raising its cost of production and mitigating some of the perceived benefits."


In case that someone is interested: a hectare of jatropha produces 1,892 liters of fuel. This means almost 12 barrels. There are 100 hectars per square kilometer, so we can produce 1,200 barrels per square kilometer. The U.S. year production of crude oil is about 365 * 5mi barrels. If we assume we are able to reap three times a year then we need about 500,000 (365 * 5mi / 3 / 1200) square kilometers of jathropa... This is about one quarter of all the arable land in U.S.


I see a lot of speculative criticism. How about an attitude of "I'll research this more," or the balanced skeptic's, "I guess we'll see."

It's at least very positive that we're looking for and studying possible solutions to the oil problem. We may solve half the world's problems when we do stumble on the fuel-technology combination that sets those of us who work apart from dictators who happen to sit on vast oil fields, some of whom have fanatical religious subjects hovering about them.


mgroves: "Rapeseed Oil" is what we, in the USA, call Canola Oil. I'm guessing that, somewhere along the way, a savvy marketer realized that putting the word "rape" in a food product bought primarily by housewives might adversely affect sales, and rechristened it.

Henry V

I agree, in part, with Vincent Amato. There are two oil "problems". One is that it may run out. Second, burning it leads to certain harmful emissions. Alternative fuels only "solve" the first problem.

However, I can't at all agree with the population remark. I don't think there's any evidence that Malthus was right.


nice post Mike Roddy- I think a cynical reason why the jatropha market will be delayed is that there's no moneyed corporation which can collect susidies to extract $ from the plants, ala the corn subsidies

vince crunk

The $70 or so per barrel of oil – is that in the field or at the refinery? In other words does that include the cost of getting it from oil fields to the refineries?

To compare the $83 it takes to make one barrel of fuel/oil out of corn, we need to know the whole cost of one barrel of oil.

Has anyone done a study on which is long-term environmentally more damaging or responsible – using corn or some alternate fuel source OR simply shipping and refining crude oil?

How many acres of planted corn does it take to make the barrel of oil? How many of sugar cane? Is either one of these more or less environmentally harmful? Erosion? Amount of water it takes to grow? Depleting the soil of nutrients needed to grow the corn/sugar cane? How long before the soil gives out and needs to rest and be restored?

As a rancher who has to buy corn to feed my animals, I've seen the price of feed grain go up –presumably due to corn crops being used for ethanol etc.

I'm taking no side on this one but when I saw the price to use corn as being greater than than of crude, I wonder why the push is to use corn, which if I understand correctly can't be a sole source but can rather be used to cut regular gas (the 85/15 ethanol mixes I've seen out west).

Also one final note on the oil issue – I read recently that if we were to start pumping oil out of the ANWR reserves in Alaska, it could reduce the price of gas at the pump by one penny per gallon. Have you seen any research to back this up? I also heard the reserve might be enough to supply our oil needs for only a few years based on current consumption.


Edwin Lee

Jatropha may indeed convert sunlight into biofuel energy. However, fresh water rather than land imposes the critical limit to biofuel production. In his book "Outgrowing the Earth", Lester Brown points out that global agricultural output, which already barely meets global needs for food, is peaking because we are rapidly draining aquifers(In China, India, Mexico and the USA for example) of fossil fresh water. As farmers return to dry farming, output drops.

In short, we have sustained our present population by draining reserves of fresh water that took thousands of years and an ice age or two to produce, now we talk about using substantially more fresh water to provide biofuel energy.

Although plants such as jatropha can help, touting them as a solution is simply the "bargaining" step in our process of facing the unpleasant reality that our lives must and will change dramatically. (Per Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book on Death and Dying, there are five last steps in moving from a established beliefs about our lives to accepting a new reality: Denial(including ridicule), Anger and Blame, Bargaining, Depression (at letting go of the old then at facing the new), and finally Acceptance (living with the new reality a day at a time).

Our economic system, as presently constructed requires perpetual growth to remain healthy. Earth is a limited system with finite capacity to sustain life. We have overshot a sustainable (population x standard of living)economy, but don't know what to do about it, so we're in denial, blame politicians or seek a magic solution that will let us go on as we are.

Should anyone be interested, I have more on this aspect of our economic system on my web page at www.elew.com



If you want to bet on the success of jatropha products, why not simply invest in a jatropha farm?


Barrel of fuel is not a measurement of potential energy. You'd want to know how much energy you can release from a barrel rather than just a measurement of volume.


Jatropha is old news here in Brazil.

Caleb Powers

Some readers have pointed out that this article may well compare apples to oranges. The $70 per barrel of oil is crude oil, which has not been processed. I don't know how much of the price of a gallon of diesel fuel is wrapped up in the oil and how much in the processing, but I'm betting there's a high processing cost. But the figures given for the various biodiesel plant sources appeared to be for final usable fuel, the equivalent of refined diesel fuel. So, if that's the case, we need to know the cost of a barrel of refined diesel fuel, not raw crude oil, to know whether any of these plants are a good deal or not in today's economy.