Jatropha: A Plant that Produces Diesel

For long, fossil fuel has been the primary source of energy production all over the world. Fossil fuels are used in transportation, electricity generation,  cooking (e.g. cooking gas), and also as lubricants (motor oil, hydraulic fluid, petroleum jelly) in moving parts of various machines.

 However, despite the wide range of uses attached to fossil fuels, there are several disadvantages associated with it. Such disadvantages include pollution of the environment due to the release of harmful substances into the environment (e.g. Carbon monoxide) during its combustion, dangerous processes associated with its drilling, being a non-renewable resource, etc. These shortcomings have made man to start considering other alternative sources of energy, and this has led to the discovery of methods of producing hydrocarbons from living organisms which are termed biofuels.

Biofuels consume cleaner than petroleum products, they discharge fewer contaminants and ozone-depleting substances into the environment, and most of all, they are sustainable. Such methods of producing fuel from plants or other sources could potentially allow us to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels and as well help us to protect our dear environment. This now takes us to one of the energy plants that have the potential to provide man with diesel- Jatropha.

Jatropha curcas is a species of flowering plant in the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae, that is native to the American tropics, most likely Mexico and Central America. It has been spread throughout the world in tropical and subtropical regions, becoming naturalized or invasive in many areas. In parts of Africa and areas in Asia, it is often known as "castor oil plant" but it is not the same as the usual castor oil plant, Ricinus communis, though they are in the same family. J. curcas is a semi-evergreen shrub or small tree, reaching a height of 6 m or more. It is resistant to a high degree of aridity, allowing it to grow in deserts. It contains phorbol esters, which are considered toxic.

The seeds of jatropha contain 27–40% oil that can be processed to produce high-quality biodiesel fuel, usable in a standard diesel engine. This ugly, poisonous weed is a big player in the biofuel market. India is currently the world's largest Jatropha producer and their biodiesel industry is centered on this crop. This has allowed the country to bring economic benefits to rural farmers who can grow this crop on normally poor agricultural land. Jatropha plants can live for 50 years and do very well on land devasted by drought and pests. The seeds of the plant are crushed to release the oil for biodiesel production. But the seed cases and vegetable matter are not wasted. They can also be used as a biomass fuel!

As you can imagine, there are some drawbacks to these kinds of fuels. Issues include things like the amount of land space required to grow the crops. This, in particular, creates problems with higher food prices and deforestation. The latter being somewhat counter-productive to the aim. Additionally, the costs for converting crops in energy crops, as well as the need to retrofit existing vehicles and power plants to run on them is not cheap.