Biofuels in a Nutshell
During the last decade biofuels have gained their place as an energy source with huge prospects. The most important drivers behind this process are strong government policies in the leading countries, ongoing technical development and cost reduction, and the sharp increase of oil prices on the international markets. Biofuels can greatly reduce the dependence of the world´s major economies on fossil fuels, and are a key instrument to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. The Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force on February 16, 2005, was an important push for the emerging biofuel industry and related investments, especially in developing countries. An important social and economic motif behind many governments is the desire to develop new markets for farming products as an alternative to traditional food commodities.
There are two classes of biofuels today. Ethanol is made from crops that are rich in sugar and starches (sugar cane, sugar beet, corn and wheat), while vegetable oil is extracted from oil-containing seeds and plants. Ethanol can be blended with gasoline up to 10% for use in normal gasoline engines, or higher in adapted engines. The world market leader in ethanol is Brazil, which has improved the conversion of sugar cane for decades to limit its dependence on imported fossil oil. Ethanol in Brazil is highly competitive with gasoline. Ethanol from corn is produced in the USA and is a more recent development. Ethanol presently (2006) accounts for some 90% of the global biofuel production; the remainder (10%) is oil-based.
Oil-based biofuels can be vegetable oil (pure plant oil - PPO) as it is extracted from the crop material, or biodiesel which is obtained after esterification of the oil. Biodiesel can be blended with petroleum-based diesel for use in conventional vehicles. Cars that use 100% biodiesel or run on PPO need some technical modifications. The by-far largest producer and consumer of biodiesel in the world is Germany, where crops such as rapeseed are grown by farmers to supply the domestic biofuel market. This market is backed by government policies and financial incentives.
Compared to the refining process of crude oil, the production of biofuel can be much more decentralized. Important differences between crude oil and biofuel production are: the much lower energy density (i.e. energy content per kg prime material) of the latter, the linkages with agricultural farming areas and communities, transport costs, and the technical characteristics of biofuels versus high-grade gasoline. A local producer can extract the oil from the raw vegetal material at one site to increase the energy density and then transport it for further processing (which is likely to be more capital-intensive). The extraction of oil from seeds on a small scale can be done using a simple press or a mill, as it has been done for many centuries all over the world.
Crops that are harvested for their biomass represent a "next-generation" feedstock, to be converted to biofuels by advanced processes. Many of these technologies are still under development. Cellulose-rich biomass includes wood, grasses and residues, which are much more abundant than food and oil crops. They are also less likely to interfere with food production. Examples are fast-growing willow and eucalyptus varieties, switch grass and miscanthus. Organic municipal solid waste provides another type of feedstock for advanced biofuel production. If economically viable and applied on a large-scale, these technologies can dramatically increase the volume of the global biofuel markets.
Jatropha originates from Central America and is nowadays found in the tropics all over the world. It grows as a straight trunk upto 6 metres high. The name "Jatropha "usually refers to Jatropha curcas L., also known as "physic nut" or "hedge castor oil plant". Jatropha belongs to the Euphorbia family and is a wild plant that has not been improved. Its contains toxic substances and is therefore used in hedges to deter cattle and game.
Jatropha is best adapted to the semi-arid conditions prevailing in the drier tropics, with annual rainfall ranging from 300 to 1,200 mm and high average temperatures. Jatropha curcas L. is not only capable of growing on marginal land, but can help reclaim degraded lands. FACT's research programme and field projects will investigate this kind of clamis.