The biofuel plant

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In the global scenario where the world is going through energy crisis as well as visible impacts of climate change, use of biofuel as alternative source of energy is extremely significant. The demand of oil, key fossil fuel is peaking continuously while its production and supply is declining. It is estimated that these crude oil reserves will be depleted within 50 years at the present level of consumption of 80 million barrels of oil every day. On the other hand, the increased green house gas emission due to the intense use of fossil fuel is creating a serious alarm. The burning of fossil fuel alone is responsible for 70% of green house gas emission. It is projected that green house gas emission from the fossil fuel will increase by 50% by the end of 2030. All these conditions have enhanced the global interest in the use of biofuel for energy security and environmental benefit.

Biofuel is solid, liquid or gaseous fuel obtained from renewable sources especially from plant biomass, vegetables oils and treated municipal and industrial waste. Besides being the renewable source of energy, there is also lesser emission of green house gas to the atmosphere by the use of biofuel. Biofuel is considered as carbon neutral. The amount of carbon dioxide released during combustion is balanced by the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the plants themselves during its growth period. It's burning also reduces the emission of nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide, halocarbons and other particulate materials in comparison to fossil fuel. Corn, sugarcane, soybean, oil palm and coconut are commonly used for biofuel production. But the use of these crops as biofuel is highly controversial because of the prevailing food security issues and environmental risks. Switching the cultivation of food crops to biofuel displaced food crops resulting in significant increase in food price. These biofuel crops compete with valuable and fertile land used for growing crops. The pressure on land from food and biofuel crops speed up deforestation and disturbance to the natural habitat which leads to higher emission of green house gas. Hence, the assumed benefit of carbon balance by the use of these crops can not be attained. These consequences developed a global interest in developing biofuel from non food biomass. At the mean time, Jatropha curcas emerged as a potential plant for biofuel which, besides being the non edible, can also grow in the degraded and marginal land. Then, all of a sudden hype of jatropha spread all over the world with its massive cultivation but without clear attention being paid to real social, economic and environmental consequences that Jatropha could entail.

J. curcas is multipurpose, drought resistant species well adapted to tropical, semi-arid regions and marginal sites. Jatropha can be grown in marginal lands avoiding the use of natural habitat. Jatropha being inedible will not displace the food crops. Scientific American in 2007 called jatropha as "green gold in shrub," a plant that "seems to offer all the benefits of biofuels without the pit falls" as the plant in one hand absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (2.25 tons of carbon dioxide is sequestered by the standing crop excluding the seeds per ha per year) and in the other hand stabilise and restore the degraded soils. The tree produces seeds containing 27-40% oil which is easily convertible into biodiesel. The plant has the capacity to produce seed for more than 50 years. It is estimated that the average yield of oil is 1300 litres per hectare.

The use of Jatropha as a biofuel offers additional advantage. The plants can be used to increase the fertility status of soil due to the properties of seed cake to act as organic fertilizer. The seed cake can also be used as protein rich livestock feed. Jatropha helps in controlling the soil erosion and furthermore claimed to improve the soil quality in degraded land. The plant in general can be used as living fence to repel animals and insects from the field crops. The plant can also be used as feed for the silkworm, for medicinal properties, dye preparation and soap production.

The increased interest of jatropha cultivation in developing countries is to become self sufficiency in oil so they do not have to import expensive oil. Countries like India, Mali, Zimbabwe believes that rural development is also possible due to jatropha cultivation. Cultivation of Jatropha is very labour intensive which creates various employment opportunities for the rural people. Development of processing plants and factories creates job opportunities for unemployed people. Jatropha, being a multipurpose tree, its cultivation helps to diversify the income sources. Various studies show that economic status of women has increased by selling soaps made from jatropha. Jatropha is a blessed plant in vary remote areas where the fuel supply is very expensive and still people have to depend on firewood for the main source of energy. The oil which is extracted from very simple and cheap methods is used to run stoves, lamps and even small machines like pumps, mills and generators.

The global biofuel interest and the high sustainability claim of Jatropha biofuel increase the expansion of Jatropha plantations all over the world with Asia and Africa as major investors. By 2009 governments from China to Brazil along with several biofuel companies had planted or targets to plant million of acres of Jatropha. There is also an increasing trend of commercial Jatropha plantation in other countries like Myanmmar, Malaysia and Malwi. With this massive cultivation worries persist if the plantation of jatropha is ecological, economical and socially sustainable.

There are many uncertainties over the potential of jatropha as a biofuel crop. First of all jatropha is an undomesticated plant. Scientists are unaware about the optimum growth conditions, various management practices and the potential yield of the plants. Looking back to all our previous crops where the process of domestication took centuries and millennia to bring them in most useful form, we have to wait a lot for the efficient production of biofuel. Within these uncertainties there is large scale cultivation of jatropha in many places. There is possibility that plant cannot obtain the desired yield. This will not only cause the financial loss to the investor but also have the huge impacts on the local communities who are in hope of the improved living conditions.

Jatropa is well known for its production in dry and degraded land but research now show that though jatropha can indeed grow in these conditions better yield is obtained when it is grown in fertile soil. According to Indian scientist jatropha grown on poor soil without irrigation has yield of 1.1-2.75 tons per hectare as compared to 5.25-12.5 with irrigation. This will drive investors in Jatropha slowly from marginal and degraded land to fertile agricultural land competing with the food crops. Consequently, the acclaimed sustainability of jatropha will be a myth.

To ascertain the impacts of global warming potential of jatropha we have to account for its green house gas emissions during the production, oil extraction and transport of the oil. There is considerable amount of green house gas emissions during various cultivation practices like irrigation, fertilizers application and also during transesterification (the process of converting the oil to diesel reacting with an alcohol). The amount of nitrous oxide emitted during the application of nitrogen in the form of synthetic fertilizers is a serious concern. In addition to this, the release of green house gas emission can also occur from the land use change for the jatropha cultivation.

Previously jatropha was thought to be disease and insect pest resistant crop. But now there are evidences of infestations of various diseases and pest like collar rot, leaf spot, root rot, inflorescence and capsule-borer and scutellarid bug under massive cultivation. This may be due to the monoculture plantation which is likely to face unexpected pest and disease infestations. This condition triggers higher use of chemicals which may not be ecologically viable. Monoculture system with the intense management practices has also the negative impacts in the bio diversity. Achievement of higher yield in degraded land also demands maximum use of chemicals which create negative impacts in ecosystem functioning.

Jatropha is an exotic species and some reports conclude that plants show invasive properties. The toxicity of seed cake used as fertilizer might have negative impact on microbial community and various biogeochemical cycles. Also these toxins may cause phyto-toxicity effect reducing germination of local species. Research show that jatropha culitivation have negative impacts on crops like Pigeon pea in India. Toxicity of jatropha seeds, oil and seed cake can also cause human health problems. Many cases of accidental jatropha seed feeing have been reported from India. Jatropha starts to bear fruits only after 5 years. Since jatropha is a sun loving plant, possibility of multiple cropping in jatropha field is also not possible. Other than this the plant also releases toxin called curcin which has effect to the companion crops.

All the above contrasting views and results, innovative ideas and consequences, facts and figures has heated high level debate on future of jatropha as a biofuel. The importance of biofuel in present situation of energy crisis and increased condition of green house gases can not be neglected where jatropha appears as a promising biofuel plant compared to the other food crops. Though, jatropa can be proved as an innovative developmental tool to eliminate poverty in the rural areas it may not necessarily address present issues of food crisis and environmental problems. With the present knowledge about jatropha it is very difficult to say whether cultivation of jatropha is sustainable in the long run. The uncertainties of the yield potential, optimum growing conditions and its possible impacts on bio diversity, soil and water quality, it is not wise enough to invest a huge amount in jatropha cultivation. Lots of experiment and research are needed to be carried to explore the potentiality of jatropha plant before any negative impacts outweigh the benefit of jatropha. All the investors in Jatropha cultivation must think once again before the expansion of jatropha cultivation before it becomes quite difficult to reclaim possible social, economic and ecological harm.


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