Adventures In Sustainability: Growing My Own Biofuel With Jatropha

Adventures In Sustainability: Growing My Own Biofuel With Jatropha

ByGroovy Green May 21, 2007

I just received a package from India. Yes, I know it was a terribly long distance to order something for a green living site; but my buying options were extremely limited in the U.S. So, turning to Ebay, I managed to find what I was looking for fairly quickly. And now, after traveling thousands of miles, I have my first jatropha seeds.

What’s jatropha? It’s a small shrub that is being planted by the millions throughout China, India, and Brazil as an alternative to oil. What makes it unique in the biofuel industry is its ability to produce a great deal of oil that needs very little refinement. A one-metre hedge will produce one kilogram of seeds with each seed containing about 1/3 of oil. 5 kilograms of seeds will give you roughly one litre. It yields more than four times as much fuel per hectare as soybean, and more than ten times that of corn. It’s extremely easy to grow, lives up to 50 years and produces seeds for its whole lifetime. Furthermore, the species is drought-resistant, can be grown at high altitudes and can withstand slight frosts. In the right conditions, each plant can grow eight or ten meters in height!

Unlike corn, Jatropha is not used as food (cattle and other animals dislike the leaves — so it’s also used as a natural fence) and its processing is fairly straight-forward: a hydraulic press to squeeze the oil from the seeds, and a chemical solution to create and filter the fuel. For some engines, the oil from the seeds can be sent straight into the system with no refinement. It’s also great for lamps and lanterns since it burns clean without emitting smoke.

Anyways, I’ve decided to see how easy it would be to grow my own jatropha and — hopefully — squeeze some oil from the seeds; enough, at least, to say power a lamp or even a small diesel engine. I know absolutely nothing about refinement, so I’m going to do the best I can to learn about the process. As with many of the topics on Groovy, it’s always our intention to introduce new ways to sustain yourself should the world go to hell tomorrow. Jatropha is simply another interesting alternative that, for all intents and purposes, looks pretty easy to milk some fuel from. We’ll see.

The seeds are planted. I’ll be providing updates here on their growth as we move forward. Any suggestions from experienced jatropha growers would be welcome for this little experiment!