Jatropha: An Alternative “Green” Source of Fuel

By Henrylito D. Tacio 


“Biodiesel dramatically reduces potential risks of cancer and birth
defects; it reduces serious air pollutants such as particulates,
carbon monoxides, hydrocarbons, and air toxins.” That statement comes
from a fact sheet circulated by the Laguna-based Philippine Council
for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development.

Biodiesel refers to a non-petroleum-based diesel fuel consisting of
long-chain alkyl (methyl, propyl, or ethyl) esters. Biodiesel is made by
chemically-reacting lipids, typically vegetable oil or animal fat, and
alcohol. It can be used (alone, or blended with conventional
petrodiesel) in unmodified diesel-engine vehicles.

Biodiesel is one of the two biofuels available in the Philippines; the
other one is bioethanol. The latter can be produced from sugarcane,
cassava, corn, sweet sorghum, and other starch and sugar-bearing
crops, most of which are still under research and development.

Coconut is the most important source of biodiesel in the country.
However, biodiesel can also be derived from other plant oils like
soybean, rapeseed, canola, sunflower, *malunggay*, jatropha, and palm
oil. Experts called these as feedstocks or “organic sources of biomass
used in the production of biofuels.”

Due to the implementation of the Biofuels Act of 2006, there is no way
Filipinos can avoid using biofuels. Republic Act 9367 mandates the use
of a minimum of one percent biodiesel blend within three months of the
passage of the law and a minimum of two percent blend within two years
(May 2009). For bioethanol, at least a 5 percent blend should be
achieved by May 2009 and a 10 percent blend by May 2011.

Among the feedstocks available in the country, jatropha -- locally
called *tubang
bakod* (as it is commonly planted in fences for hedges), *kasla,
tubang silangan, tawa-tawa*, and *tuba-tuba* – has been given much
importance by most experts and researchers. In United Kingdom, an oil
company has been producing biodiesel from jatropha oils. Its refinery
can produce up to 8 million liters of biodiesel per year, equivalent
to about 22,000 liters daily.


A study conducted by the Integrated Research and Training Center of
the Technological University of the Philippines and Chemrez Technologies Inc.
found that the properties of the jatropha biodiesel they produced were
within the specifications in EN 14214 (European Biodiesel Standards)
and ASTMD 6751 (American Biodiesel Standards).

This means that oil extracted from local jatropha seeds can be
converted to quality biodiesel.

In 2006, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered the Department of
Energy to widen the propagation of jatropha plants not only in
military camps but in all available public lands. “*Jatropha is the
best alternative fuel and we need to propagate it,” she pointed out.

An earlier study conducted by the Asian Development Bank found that
six million hectares of land in the country are unfarmed.
Additionally, 15 million hectares, or half of the country’s territory, are denuded forests.

“These idle lands are potential areas for jatropha plantation in the
country,” said Rafael L. Coscolluela, vice chairman of the
government-run National Biofuels Board (NBB), in a biofuels briefing
for media practitioners at Los Baños, Laguna. The gathering was
convened by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and
Research in Agriculture.

According to experts, irrigated land can be planted with up to 2,500
jatropha plants per hectare – with a spacing of two meters by two
meters. But
on poor soil, and land dependent only on rainfall, the plants should
be spaced further apart. A month or two before the start of rainy
season is a good time to plant.

Jatropha can be propagated both by seeds or cuttings. The seeds can
be planted directly. If seedlings are to be used, they must be two to
three months grown in nurseries. The seedlings or cuttings are
planted and then covered with soil on an up-hill manner to avoid
erosion. The plants are watered for two weeks after transplanting.

Jatropha can be grown on watershed basins and on low-fertility,
marginal, degraded, fallow, and waste lands. It can grow outside of
forestlands, along canals and railway tracks, and on borders of
farmers’ fields. It is also highly recommended as crop for idle lands.

Jatropha is productive for up to 30-40 years. While jatropha plants
may start bearing some fruit in six months, and harvesting may occur
by the eighth month, it would still take three to four years for it to
reach full productivity. Potential yield ranges from 1.25 to 12.5 tons
of seeds per hectare.

In a study made by the Philippine Forest Corporation, it was found
that 30 percent of the contents of jatropha nuts oil. This is easily
extracted from the nut by the use of a presser-expeller. The engine
driven machine is simple enough to be operated by anyone in provinces.
The yield is about one liter of oil for every three kilograms of
seeds. The oil is then refined to produce biodiesel called jatropha methyl ester (JME).

“With the ever increasing interest in biodiesel fuels,” someone said,
“Filipinos may one day get used to the idea that fuel for our vehicles
was harvested from local plantations instead of using imported oil
from the Middle East.”

Dr. Virgilio T. Villancio, program leader of the integrated research
and development program on jatropha for biodiesel at the University of
the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB), estimated that jatropha
investments for the Philippines would cost P2 million to P3 million
per town. The expense, he said, is mostly for the shrub’s processing equipment.

A jatropha oil expeller, which separates oil from the jatropha seed,
costs at least P2 million. The machine can extract some 1,000 liters
of jatrophaoil a day and is suitable for a 200-hectare jatropha field
– a land area nearly 15 times the size of the SM Mall of Asia in Pasay

UPLB estimates that there are some 1,500 liters of jatropha oil – from
about 1,600 plants – per hectare. After processing, this quantity can
supply the diesel requirements of a small town.

JME diesel can fuel cooking stoves and power small-town generators, as
well as farming equipment and vehicles like tractors and pumps that
run on diesel engines.

“If diesel fuel from jatropha is produced in the rural areas for local
consumption, just imagine how much you’re saving in terms of
transportation costs alone,” said NBB’s Coscolluela.

While planting jatropha won’t make farmers rich, it can augment the
income of rural households. This was attested by a study done by
researchers of the UPLB’s College of Forestry and Natural Resources.

The study, “Ex-Ante Socioeconomic and Institutional Assessment of
JatrophaProduction, Promotion, and Development as Biodiesel,” was
carried out in 15 locations across Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao and is
expected to be completed in July 2009.

Ninety-five percent of the study’s respondents confirmed that jatropha
could help improve their lives by providing “livelihood and additional
income that could help meet household expenses,” to quote the words of Dr. Nena O.
Espiritu, UPLB assistant professor who headed the study.

“Income derived from Jatropha, although representing only a small
percentage of the household’s aggregate income, has a great potential
to alleviate poverty in the countryside,” the study averred.

Briefing materials indicated that initial investment for commercial
plantation of jatropha ranges from P32,119 to P52,770, with payback
period in two or three years.

On the other hand, a report from the Department of Environment and
Natural Resources showed that a grower could earn P200,000 a hectare a
year from the sale and processing of jatropha nuts.

Just a warning: The seeds of jatropha are poisonous. Dr. Carmina
Leoncio, in a letter published in a national magazine, reported,
“Jatropha is a common cause of poisoning among children, since kids
are attracted by the appearance of the seeds, which look like nuts.”