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Singapore, January 8 – Local biofuel companies that have planted jatropha crops years ago are now seeing the fruits of their efforts. The crops, which are at plantations in China, Myanmar and India, are now being harvested.
This year will prove to be a crucial one for this biofuel crop, as companies test out whether it can succeed as a profitable commercial venture.
Jatropha oil can be converted into high-quality biodiesel as well as aviation fuel.
As early as 2004, jatropha curcas had been cultivated on a large scale by India and Brazil. But many such attempts in India ended in failure because the plant did not give the high yield of oil expected.
Lately, there seems to be a revival of interest in the biofuel, with a better understanding of the crop and improved technology that can increase the oil yield.
Carriers such as Germany’s Lufthansa, Brazil’s TAM Airlines, Air New Zealand and Air China are starting or have already carried out successful jatropha fuel trials on their planes.
Local start-up Biofuel Resource, which has a 33 sq km jatropha plantation in the Guangxi autonomous region in China, is now reaping its first commercial harvest after almost four years of waiting. The area is just 10 per cent of the total land allocated to it by the Chinese government.
By the end of this year, it hopes to collect 15,000 tonnes of jatropha oil – enough to power a fleet of 1,000 trucks for five years.
The company will process the oil into biodiesel at its own refinery, which will be completed by the second half of this year, and sell it to businesses in Guangxi.
Singaporean Charlie Teo, its founder and chairman, worked in China’s coal industry for more than 16 years before he started Biofuel Resource in 2007.
He tied up with Chinese jatropha research scientists to develop the plantation in Longzhou County, Chongzuo prefecture, where there is arable but less fertile land.
Their key to success: an oil yield of 40 per cent to 50 per cent using crops developed by the Chinese researchers.
‘We hope to deliver 100,000 metric tonnes of biodiesel (each year) eventually,’ said the 46-year-old.
Mr Ernest Tan, the company’s chief executive, believes that bio-fuels are a better and more efficient alternative form of renewable energy than solar and wind power.
He said: ‘They are not yet practical for land transportation, which is a major consumer of fossil fuel, while biofuel is an immediately practical substitute.’
Industry analysts in Singapore agree that jatropha is a resilient fuel crop, as it can grow on marginal soil, which is unsuitable for food crops.
Many plantations had failed because wild species of jatropha were used and the crops were not properly cultivated.
Different renewable resources fulfil different needs, said Professor Michael Quah of the Energy Studies Institute at the National University of Singapore.
There is the electron diet – which is electricity required by buildings and appliances – and there is the liquid diet – used by the majority of transportation modes such as cars, planes and ships.
Said Prof Quah: ‘Our ‘liquid diet’ will always be there; hence, biofuels will be needed to satisfy this (need).’
Mr Kom Mam Sun, director of local company Biofuel Research, cited jatropha’s toxicity and low oil yield as drawbacks.
‘When we talk to farmers, they tell us that they would prefer to plant edible crops on arable land, rather than a toxic crop,’ he said.
But such problems may be resolved with proper research and planning, said Dr Hong Yan of the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL), who is also an adjunct associate professor at the Nanyang Technological University.
Dr Hong, who is also a lead researcher at Joil, a TLL spin-off, said the latter has successfully grown a tissue culture which would enable jatropha plants to have seeds which contain more oil.
Other Singapore companies which have bet their dollar on jatropha include listed firm Yoma Strategic Holdings, which has a plantation in Myanmar’s Ayerwaddy Division, and Bioenergy Plantations, which has recently launched India’s first ‘self-sustainable village’ with jatropha farms, solar units and windmills in the state of Andhra Pradesh.
Mr Serge Pun, chairman and CEO of Yoma, which has harvested from about 240ha of crops, said: ‘Although jatropha curcas has been around for many years, it is a new crop when it comes to large-scale commercial plantations.
‘It needs both varietal and yield improvements to ensure sustainable commercial success.’
Sceptre Group Limited is a specialist investment firm focused in low carbon financial investments such as sustainable biofuel plantations, agricultural farmland and green technologies. For more information on Biofuel Investments, please visit Sceptre Group’s website at www.sceptreinternational.com.