Could Australia – whose likely host states currently ban Jatropha plants – become a source of feedstock for a biofuel capable of replacing jet fuel?
The West Australian recently reported that Air New Zealand has successfully used a 50-50 blend of standard jet fuel and synthetic fuel made from the oil of Jatropha plant seeds to power one of the engines on a Boeing 747 during a two-hour test flight from Auckland International Airport.
This world first for Jatropha oil follows a Virgin Atlantic test flight that used a blend including coconut oil and Babassu nut oil.
Air New Zealand chief pilot Dave Morgan says:
“We undertook a range of tests on the ground and in flight with the Jatropha biofuel performing well through both the fuel system and engine.”
Further analysis of the Rolls-Royce engine and fuel systems will now be conducted as the airline works to have Jatropha certified as an aviation fuel.
The test flight was a joint venture involving Air New Zealand, Boeing, Rolls-Royce and Honeywell company UOP, with support from Terasol Energy.
Jatropha needs little water and grows well in the harshest conditions. The WA Department of Food and Agriculture says two species – the Physic Nut and Belly Ache Bush – are found in the Kimberley and Port Hedland regions. They are declared noxious weeds.
Air NZ chief Rob Fyfe acknowledges the importance of stringent biological controls, but hopes these can be developed to build confidence that an industry can be introduced commercially without threatening the biological and agricultural environment.
Could Jatophra production be a future industry for Indigenous communities in Northern Australia?
It seems the experts agree that algae, which needs much less area to produce and reproduce at prodigious rates, are the long-term holy grail of alternative fuel feedstocks but say algae supporters still face technical challenges. A Honeywell UOP spokesperson says:
“You can’t wait on the sidelines and wait 10 years and say okay, the perfect biological future will be lignocellulose or algae-based and we’re just going to sit around and wait for that to happen.”
Jatropha and Camelina are considered ‘bridging feedstocks’ as they are available now and could have a significant impact in as little as three to five years.
For Rob Fyfe, the biofuels push is an essential part of his airline’s strategy and important for the New Zealand tourism industry, which makes up 10 per cent of the nation’s GDP. He says:
“We strongly believe that if we can position New Zealand and Air New Zealand at the forefront of protecting the Earth’s environment, that will attract more people to come and explore what this nation’s all about and experience this environment.”
“Jatropha is believed to have originated in South America, where from ancient times extracts from its leaves and seeds were used as medicine. Jatropha’s medical qualities derive from curcin, a chemical present in the plant’s shoots and leaves, which is effective as an antiseptic but can be anti-nutritional if ingested in large quantities.
It is said that Portuguese sailors learned of Jatropha’s medicinal qualities when they came to South America in the 16th century. They took Jatropha to Africa and India, where its fast growth and inedible leaves made it ideal as a stock fence to prevent animals grazing crops. It is also widely grown as a shade tree for dwellings. Jatropha now grows from the forests of Brazil to the tropical islands of Fiji. Jatropha is still used as a traditional medicine in India and Africa.
Jatropha vegetable oil can be extracted from the seeds by crushing. It is inedible and was used for centuries to make basic oil lamps. Industrial production was undertaken in the nineteenth century in the Cape Verde Islands to produce lamp oil for the Portuguese market, but this was abandoned with the advent of cheap paraffin oil. Until recently there has been no concentrated attempt to pioneer Jatropha as a commercial source of vegetable oil to make fuel.”
It may be easier and more rewarding financially to farm Jatropha than to try and milk camels?