An ugly, toxic, tough-skinned weed has made a bit of a splash in recent weeks as a renewable energy source that wields a unique distinction: a decent shot at commercial viability. Oil made from the seeds of the jatropha plant, native to Central America and used for centuries as a hedgerow, has helped to power test flights by Air New Zealand (AIZ.AX), Japan Airlines (9205.T), and Continental Airlines (CAL) in the past six weeks. The oil's ability to replace kerosene-based jet fuel has provoked cautious optimism among researchers aiming to speed the aviation world's transition from crude oil.
Pilots ran the jet engines through a battery of tests, including complete shutdowns and restarts, to investigate jatropha's legitimacy as a jet fuel. "From a technical perspective, it performed flawlessly," says Darrin Morgan, director of sustainable biofuels strategy for Boeing (BA). The airplane maker is part of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group, a consortium that includes nine airlines and UOP, a Honeywell (HON) subsidiary focused on fuel technology. Created in 2008, the group's goal is eventually to power jets with alternatives such as jatropha, algae, and camelina, a prairie grass.
Jatropha has long been used as a hedgerow and, less frequently, as a parasol to shade coffee crops. Its leaves have been used as a pesticide, its bark for dye, and its oil for soap. One of the so-called third-generation of biofuels, which includes algae and switchgrass, jatropha yields more energy than oils derived from soy or corn and avoids the food vs. fuel debate. Its fruit is poisonous and, like any weed worth its name, jatropha can grow on non-arable ground, such as sub-Saharan Africa and India, the current leading grower.
While soy can produce 60 gallons to 100 gallons of oil per hectare (2.5 acres) each year, jatropha's pressed seeds yield roughly 600 gallons of amber-tinted oil. Its durability in conditions that would make other plants wither, plus its 40-year lifespan, has created a bit of a mythology. "There's a lot of hype it can grow on the side of a cliff, upside down, with no sunlight," jokes Sanjay Pingle, president of Terasol Energy, a plant biotechnology company.A Tiny Blip So Far
For many, the idea of a rough-and-tumble weed supplanting Big Oil holds a certain romance, but Morgan and others believe jatropha can claim a legitimate future in the energy business. Yet for all of jatropha's success as an easy-to-refine "drop-in" jet fuel, it remains a very tiny green blip on the radar of energy policy. Still, with a new Administration friendlier toward renewable energy, that blip could grow. President Barack Obama's stimulus package includes $18 billion to spur research into renewable energy.
Jatropha backers' delight is tempered by several enormous challenges: There's no commercial quantity at the moment, even in the distant countries where it is cultivated, and the refined oil's production faces several critical hurdles. The plants require two or three years to produce their first full fruit, and seed oil won't hit the world market in bulk for another year or two. Compounding the immediate shortage is that the fruit clusters don't ripen simultaneously, making mechanization impossible. Through agronomy, and altering the plant's genetic makeup, jatropha researchers say both problems are fixable.