Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Palm Oil - The Death of a Rain Forest

I'm no tree hugger. Tree huggers are loonies who live in trees to keep the trees from being cut down. I am a realist. The real truth is that corporate greed around the world is wiping out rain forests. The real thing is, the low lands of Indonesia are being stripped of invaluable rain forests faster than most of us understand. Why? So we can plant for palm oil harvesting.

In my last blog, I extolled the virtues of Jatropha Curcas as a bio fuel. It doesn't require fertile land for growth- Grow it in the desert, on rocky hills or even salty plains with adequate drainage. Temperature requirements for Jatropha Curcas are similar for corn. Grow it like you know it.

Take a moment to watch this video. It's only a couple of minutes long.

That video targets Dove, and I hope it has an effect on Dove, but refusing to buy Dove products is only the tip of the iceberg. Palm oil is also in many food products. You use it in cosmetics, chocolate, condiments, chips, etc. Also, palm plantations employ whole societies in Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Benin, Kenya, Colombia.

Are there less fertile places outside of the rain forests where these people can plant Jatropha Curcas? In some case "yes," and others "no."

I previously mentioned that Jatropha Curcas produced like 500% more oil than corn. However, this is not a fair comparison. We use corn to produce bio ethanol. We use bio oils (Jatropha Curcas) to produce bio diesel. Studies are forthcoming that compare other bio ethanol sources to the leading sources of bio ethanol corn and sugarcane. Switchgrass is a strong contender as a replacement for corn and sugarcane as a bio ethanol.

Let's take a look at bio sources of oil ranked by gallons per acre (see the chart on the right). Keep in mind that there is a tremendous amount of variability in these numbers. For example, Jatropha Curcas produces more seeds in its third year than second. The chart is just to give you a general idea of potentials. Most of the numbers came from

You can see that palm oil is at the top. Some would argue that Jatropha Curcas will eventually be able to double the oil per acre over palm oil. Time will tell. In the mean time, we must be careful not to encourage palm oil's use as a bio fuel. Anything we can do to discourage the destruction of rain forests is a plus. If you don't think it matters, I promise you- It matters more to you than you know.

One problem of both bio ethanol and bio diesel is that it will require an enormous amount of land to produce enough bio fuel to replace petroleum. Even if we figure out a way to meet demand for this decade, world population is increasing faster than we can keep up. In 1802, we had 1 billion people on the planet. Now, we have 6.5 billion. We'll have 7 billion people by 2011. Population is increasing by 211,090 people per day (according to CIA world facts).

We need a bio fuel that can do better than 1000 gallons per acre. We need something that can produce 10,000 to 50,000 gallons of oil per acre.

Look no further than your fish tank. I'm talking about algae. We researched it years ago, but someone said it was too expensive to go from harvested oil to usable fuel. That was back when crude oil was $20 a barrel. I'm guessing that with improved technology and the economies of post-$100 barrel oil, things have changed.

When we talk about how many gallons of oil per acre that can be produced, we normally think about a vertical crop that covers an acre. This is not the case with algae. It can be grown in multiple stacks of vertical sheets. In the future, you could have a 10-story building producing 30,000 gallons of oil per story per year (or more). It's the new soylent green without the mess of people. The water will be recyclable and algae eats CO2, cutting green house gas. Maybe, we'll grow our own fuel in our backyards.

We've already identified algae strains that produce best. Once we master conversion costs from raw oil to fuel, we'll never fight another war over crude oil again. Doesn't that sound nice?

Take a look at these videos on the process.

Videos found on:

Monday, April 28, 2008

Jatropha Curcas as a Bio Fuel?

A couple of years ago, I was on a plane reading an article about bio fuels. The article was trumpeting the benefits of a raggedy plant called Jatropha Curcas (pronounced JAT-ruff-uh cur-cuss). According to the article, the plant grew like a weed, but is more like a tree. It sounded like the perfect plant for bio diesel.

I assumed that I would be hearing about it in the news soon, but I never did. So, whatever became of Jatropha Curcas as a bio fuel? Why don’t we hear more about it?

By now, most of us realize the dangers of using corn as a bio fuel. It drives up food costs, it encourages the razing of forests, it injects nitrogen and pesticides in soils (nitrogen causes green house gases from soil microbiological processes), and it takes food needed for starving people and puts it in cars. I realize that oversimplifies the issue a bit, but the broad strokes are there for discussion.

I want to talk about the pros and cons of using Jatropha Curcas as a bio fuel. I'm not an expert in bio fuels, but I'd like to understand the issues.

In the original article I read, Jatropha Curcas, which is also called the "physic nut", was touted as being so easy to grow that it was planted along the railway tracks in India. It requires much less water and nitrogen than other bio-fuel plants, and it can grow in soil usually considered too infertile for food production- like beside a gravel-pocked railroad track.

Its leaves have a natural resistance to insects, so it does not need to be treated with pesticides. It cannot be eaten by animals, so raising it for fuel does not reduce supply of livestock feed, and, per hectare, it produces substantially more oil than corn.

The Cons: There are worries that- because Jatropha Curcas grows so easily, it will become an invasive species, overwhelming native ecologies and reduce biodiversity. Also, though bio fuels are more environmentally friendly, bio fuels extend the life of the combustion engine. Some would like to see it disappear completely, regardless of its projected eco-friendly nature with bio fuels. While they burn cleaner than petroleum products and do not produce sulfur emissions, bio-diesels continue to produce carbon dioxide emissions (C02). Of course, like most plants, Jatropha Curcas absorb C02. However, I do not understand how close the emissions and absorption balance each other out.

The following is a chart I created to compare pros and cons on several different levels for Jatropha Curcas.

Jatropha Curcas Corn & other bio fuels
Jatropha Curcas can be grown in waste lands with poor soil and limited water Corn/soy requires prime farm land with access to ample irrigation. Deforestation can result from the desire to produce more prime growing lands.
Jatropha Curcas is resistant to insect attack and does not need pesticides Corn usually requires pesticide treatment, which can affect water table quality
Jatropha Curcas requires little to no fertilization Corn usually requires nitrogen fertilization which releases nitrous oxide from the soil creating a green house gas
Jatropha Curcas does not require refrigeration or protection from rodents to transport. This increases the possibilities for interior communities to transport the product to locations of export. Corn must be protected from vermin and will spoil if transported over hot terrain for long periods.
Jatropha Curcas is not edible. Therefore, it is not taking potential food from starving peoples. It is also not taking land needed for planting food crops, as it can grow in less desirable land. Using corn as bio fuel increases food costs and potentially makes food less accessible to those with few resources.
Because Jatropha Curcas is not edible, crop losses due to wandering animals does not happen. Corn and other bio fuel. foods are often eaten by native animals- often incurring substantial crop loss.
Jatropha Curcas produces some 500% more usable oil from its seeds than an equivalent amount of corn. Oil extraction from its seeds varies from 28% to 94% with 37% to 50% average. Corn produces 1.55 pounds of oil per bushel
Methods for harvesting Jatropha Curcas seeds is currently underdeveloped (2008). The method most likely to be used is similar to coffee, in which the plant is shaken to force the seeds to drop. Corn harvesting is well developed and automated.
Jatropha Curcas can survive drought. It can even be planted in the desert, clay or rocky terrains (5 - 6.5 PH). Flooded plains will not grow Jatropha Curcas. The land must have drainage. Corn cannot survive drought without intervention. Soil must be fertile.
Jatropha Curcas crops do not need to be rotated to maintain soil. Corn crops must be rotated to a different food crop to maintain soil - or, the soil can be supplemented with fertilizers.
There are fears that Jatropha Curcas could become an invasive species that might dominate non-indigenous locations. More study is needed. There is no fear corn will become an invasive plant.
Jatropha Curcas can grow from cuttings or seeds, making it economical to plant. Corn is grown from seed planting.
The oil from Jatropha Curcas would be primarily destined for use as bio-diesel. Eating it is considered poisonous. Corn oil is used as bio fuel and in food preparation.
Jatropha Curcas has been successfully tested as a viable bio-diesel. Corn has also been tested as a viable bio fuel.

The main downside I can see is that Jatropha Curcas may get out of control as a pest plant. However, it was introduced in parts of Africa as a wind break several years ago, and invasive monopoly of local ecology has not ensued.

So, why do we continue to talk about corn as a bio-fuel when other plants seem to do it so much better? I'm going to keeping looking.

Below is a video I found on Jatropha Curcas.