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.


brianmalawi

The plant grows enormously well in areas where others won't. It bears fruit within about 18 months, and is particularly well suited to existing agricultural areas as an agroforestry species. You shouldn't cut forest to plant it, rather it can be planted in already deforested areas! The tree is hardy, producing seeds even in dry times. The leaves make great compost.

Ben

Jeff's point is very important. Comparing volumes of fuel means almost nothing. For instance, [corn-based] ethanol only produces about 2/3 of the energy of gasoline. So if you wanted to swap one for the other, you would need to look at the price of 1.5 barrels of ethanol versus 1 barrel of gasoline. Sugar ethanol, however burns much more efficiently and makes a better substitute in terms of price. This is why Brazil can get a large share of its energy from sugar-based ethanol but the model will not transport to the US, where we can only produce corn-based ethanol in large quantities right now.

Until we know how efficiently jatropha burns, this data means nothing.

Tom Gelsthorpe

re: # 3 Vincent Amato

You've done well to question the "more is better" foolosophy, with its embedded assumption that the highest goal of humanity is to create one automobile per adult, so that young blades can drive their sweeties out to levees in red convertibles, make them pregnant and get married so that she can get her own automobile & her own job, so they can enable their 3.2 kids to grow up, get their own cars and jobs, etc. ad infinitum, until the sun turns into a supernova and swallows up the first four planets.

It appears that the movement to develop biofuels has this scenario in mind. We'd sooner carpet the planet with oilbushes than question the basic plan.

Even so, Mr. Amato, you might be mistaken that overpopulation is going to kill us all. It's probably only going to kill some of us, as it has already down so many times before. There were drastic population declines following the collapse of classical civilizations, the Mongol conquests and the Black Death, but we always came roaring back. Consider that even if 5/6ths of humanity died tomorrow, there would still be more people on earth than there were in 1830. If New York metro were left intact, the Times could continue to publish thoughtful speculations -- "Where do we go from here?" and so forth.

But back to the topic of biofuels. Folks aren't going to give up their comforts readily. If we were all that enamored with biofuels, we could go back to donkey carts that burn hay. It wasn't all that great in 1830 and it wouldn't go over too well today, either. Look how rapidly jackass dependent societies attempt to modernize or send their huddled masses yearning to breathe free to areas where donkeys are already obsolete.

My feeling is that the future of biofuels ties into genetic engineering of crops. Luddite superstition about "Frankenfoods" will subside, especially in regard to things we're not planning to eat. Someday plant scientists will create oil seeds the size of watermelons, with a skin like a gelatin capsule and fuel inside so pure that you can load the fruit into your car and run a straw directly from the fruit to the carburetor. The agro-efficiency of converting available sunlight into this pure fuel will exceed our wildest imaginations of today.

Of course if demand is expected to rise indefinitely, then farmland devoted to same will have to rise indefinitely. Hmmm. . .

It's going to be one tough job guarding those oil seed fields, too.

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AndyM

It's a little disappointing that Goldman Sachs, the WSJ article, and this blog all ignore the fact that price is not the same as cost, at least from a societal perspective. Even if the price of jatropha reaches the $43/bbl level, that does not address any external costs associated with its production. If jatropha requires as little resource input as implied, that could make its total cost even more attractive compared to other alternatives. As with most new approaches, there are likely to be unintended consequences with large scale implementation, which can significantly change the relative cost picture, even if the relative price numbers remain the same.

Zack B

Henry V,

One oversight - alternative fuels do actually address the second problem, because they would, ideally, be carbon-neutral. That is, the CO2 produced in the burning of the fuel is offset by the CO2 uptake created by growing the plant in the first place. And considering that less than 100% of the "recovered" carbon is burned (as less than 100% of the plant becomes fuel), you'd actually see a net reduction in carbon emissions.

Todd C Neumann

I don't think its population that will kill humans, but the human population will likely kill everything not in a zoo or that we don't eat.

Why not change the assumption that there should be more people next generation. A billion people vs 6 billion and growing would vastly ease our impact on the planet.

martin g

It appears the Goldman Sachs data is leaving out some very significant factors. How can sugar cane be so efficient when you can't grow it just anywhere and the quantity of water needed is relatively high?
No free lunch.

dreevesx

It should be coupled with reefer production because Jatropha, by itself, won't make you happy.

Jeff M

vbroz and others are right about the amount of space needed for the crops. This really comes down to the efficiency of the plant to convert the sun's incoming energy. The maximum I've seen is switchgrass, converting 0.5% of the incoming energy from the sun. Corn captures 0.25% of the sun's incoming energy, and as you can see on the chart in the link below, it would take a HUGE amount of area of fuel half the cars on the road.
http://www.teslamotors.com/blog2/?p=22 (scroll down slightly)

I'm not sure what percentage efficiency was used to calculate the amount of area solar photovoltaics would use, but since it was calculated using 2001 numbers, I'm sure it will only decrease as the technology improves.

That said, if this can work in India on "millions of acres of wasteland" to help prevent the country from significantly increasing its carbon footprint in the decades to come, more power to them.

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Eve

Nice analysis, but missing the obvious. Solar, optics & physics will determine our next mode of automobiles/trucks. Similar to nuclear energy, this mode will not run on a combustion engine requiring oil-based fuel. However, it will not come from current auto R&D shops. Television was invented by a 14 yr. old farm kid in Idaho. Rocketry was founded on the inventiveness of some poor boys in W.VA coal mines. This, too, will be invented by creative minds outside the current oil & auto industries, which will surely throw billions against its development. The invention may come from the USA, but its development into commercially viable transportation will be elsewhere. I already have a basic design & components of such a model & if I can think it, others are too.

Prof. Brainiac

From the WSJ article:

"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."

Umm, WTF?

Does this plant magically grow, process, contain, and transfer itself to your fuel tank all by itself?

Or, which seems far more bloody likely: does it require real human and mechanical efforts and resources to produce it, which could have otherwise went into producing more food crops?

Tim D

Looking at the cost of a barrel of oil at $70 is that with the billions of $ being spent in the Middle East and in Iraq? or do all those additional costs get attributed solely to terrorism protections. Any fuel that keeps us from spending billions of $ and US Troops lives has to be a better alternative.
T

Mouseplatterman

Prof. Brainiac--more jobs is bad all of a sudden?

That being said, fuel itself seems somewhat superfluous to me, at least for the most part. Plug-in electric vehicles, and eventually 100% electric vehicles, have the potential to provide nearly all our transportation needs. They are far more efficient than any internal combustion engine, and even if all the power comes from coal plants, pollution is far lower than from normal cars. If nuclear power was more widely adopted, we could have nigh-unlimited, clean power.

tucker

Prof. Brainiac - You severely overstate the cost of labor in agriculture in the third world. The entire current movement towards increasing agricultural production is based on increasing land productivity. The more worrying costs are capital costs: first whether capital inputs need to be imported (increasing risk, instability and a political issue); second costs in nutrients within the soil that might run out; third and previously mentioned water requirements which are the most important. If any policy makers want to solve the largest problem they should create a universal water rights system, whoever does so will be a more prominent historical figure than Bush.

synapticmisfires

The Malthusian model is unrealistic. Humans in all likelihood won't continue to reproduce very far past the carrying capacity, because the shortage of worldwide resources will be obvious to every individual in terms of prices and scarcity. Further, the Malthusian model is made improbable by the fact that humans are (roughly speaking) the only animal with the ability to change their carrying capacity, by way of more efficient technology.

The bottom line is that if an oil substitute can be formulated by the plant in sufficient quantities to offset costs, it WILL happen. One possibility is that the plant will only pass the cost-benefit analysis in cases of extremely cheap land (of low quality) and will contribute only partially to carbon footprint. Another is that the would-be farmers would be unable to even pay expenses and the land will be bought from them and used for a nuclear plant or something.

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Francis Flaherty

biofuel from corn is almost twice what it is from sugar cane so, along with massive subsidies to farmers, our gov promotes corn. What would gov do if Cuba turned most of its sugar cane to fuel so our sugar industry didn't need an embargo? That could replace Venezuela as a fuel source. Such a dilemma! It's a good thing we have all those democratic regimes in the Middle East to rely upon.

Tom

Actually, rapeseed oil has too much pyruvic acid for human consumption, so it has to be chemically processed before it's "Canola Oil" (name derived from Canadian oil, low acid.")

E. Winters

Saving the planet begins with limiting births and removing cars and other polluting machines. There are too many of us - and we have too much 'stuff!'

EW

Nate Marik

Many of the same claims can be made about hemp and switch grass but the fact is that "no fertilizer" + "fuel alternative" = less income for chemical and oil companies.

In other words, the politics will kill it.

NM

Tihamer Toth-Fejel

Malthusianism is a fatally flawed doctrine, both from a historical and an economic perspective (See Julian Simon's book "Ultimate Resource II" at http://www.juliansimon.com/writings/Ultimate_Resource/

Singh's work on jatropha is promising, but the advances in solar power will short circuit the entire oil/biomass industry. At Darpatech earlier this month, one of the DARPA program managers said, after announcing a new record in photovoltaic efficiency (42.8%), that they will be working on making solar cells as cheap as newsprint. He also quoted a wise Saudi prince who said, "The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones, and the oil age will not end because we run out of oil".

See Josh Hall's "Nanofuture" to get some hints on how it might happen. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/1591022878/ref=cm_cr_dp_all_helpful/102-7794771-0267340?ie=UTF8&n=283155#customerReviews

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