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Power Science

New Wonder Weed to Fuel Cars? 484

Hugh Pickens writes "Jatropha, an ugly, fast-growing and poisonous weed that has been used as a remedy for constipation, may someday power your car. The plant, resilient to pests and resistant to drought, produces seeds with up to 40 per cent oil content that when crushed can be burned in a diesel car while the residue can be processed into biomass for power plants. Although jatropha has been used for decades by farmers in Africa as a living fence because its smell and taste repel grazing animals, the New York Times reports that jatropha may replace biofuels like ethanol that require large amounts of water, fertilizer, and energy, making their environmental benefits limited. Jatropha requires no pesticides, little water other than rain and no fertilizer beyond the nutrient-rich seed cake left after oil is pressed from its nuts. Poor farmers living close to the equator are planting jatropha on millions of acres spurred on by big oil companies like British Petroleum that are investing in jatropha cultivation."
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New Wonder Weed to Fuel Cars?

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  • Just use hemp. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by lecithin ( 745575 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:35PM (#20542435)
    It is a very good biomass source, it grows just about everywhere.

    You don't get high from smoking industrial hemp.

    See: []
  • by eln ( 21727 ) * on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:39PM (#20542487)
    This is a noxious fast-growing weed, apparently kept in check in its native environment due to the fact that the soil and weather conditions there are terrible for growing anything. However, TFA mentions that various companies are looking at planting this thing all over the place, including areas that have good soil and growth-friendly climates.

    So what happens when we start planting this thing everywhere? Could this turn into the next kudzu?
  • by HerculesMO ( 693085 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:40PM (#20542511)
    with BP every day. They are the only major oil company to seem to "get" that oil won't last forever. They have invested money into solar technologies (walk into Home Depot), lowered their own emissions requirements to meet standards that don't even exist yet, and now are shown to be investing heavily into alternative "bio" fuels. Exxon and the like seem content to just pulling oil from the ground and putting it into pumps.

    Just a simple thought. They are still an "evil oil company" thus far as I can see... but at least they have vision for the future and aren't thinking oil will last forever as the Bush administration thinks it will.
  • Re:Poor farmers (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mi ( 197448 ) <> on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:41PM (#20542523) Homepage Journal

    Just wait 'till someone like the evil Monsanto figures out a way to genetically modify this weed to either boost the oil contents even further, or make it capable of growing in Antarctica, or both... Then we will get the showdown...

  • by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:45PM (#20542613)
    Too many billions in subsidies going into the maw of ethanol production.
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cromar ( 1103585 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:46PM (#20542633)
    The nations need to get their collective heads out of their collective asses and see what a Good Thing(TM) hemp is (and I'm not even talking about it's psychoactive properties). Hemp could solve so many environmental/economical/jocular problems it's ridiculous to regulate it so heavily.

    "Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere!" - The Writings of George Washington (1794)
  • by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:47PM (#20542645) Journal
    It is nice on the surface.

    OTOH, it makes perfect sense that an energy company wants to maintain their dominance even after their original product (petroleum) runs out. Now if BP is busily publishing their research results on all of the alternate energies, cool... but if they're keeping it a secret (or at least hard-to-get), then it's merely a matter of going from being a dominant force in one segment of the energy industry towards being a dominant force in the others, before the rest realize what's up and tries to muscle in on its new-found turf.

    Now if BP was busily passing knowledge of its research along openly (a'la FOSS), then props to 'em. Otherwise they're not much more in my eyes than, say, MSFT adapting their products to run in some new technology with a lot of growth potential.


  • Not cost effective (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ChrisMaple ( 607946 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:54PM (#20542759)
    According to the article, the price of fuel derived from this will be in excess of $1/liter, or about $4/gallon. That's more that diesel is now. Something will have to change for this to be profitable.
  • Incineration (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Silentknyght ( 1042778 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:55PM (#20542769)
    I'm at a loss as to why incineration isn't being touted as the next wave of energy production. I suppose the common man doesn't understand that the fuel stock doesn't greatly matter or differ when it comes out of the stack, provided the usual pollution control devices.

    You're going to have nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and depending on the fuel & control devices used, varying levels of particulates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). You're going to get this whether you burn the horribly-connoted "coal" or the relatively-benignly-connoted "wood". Plant matter, like that specified in TFA, isn't all that different from "wood", and actually used to be lumped together in the "biomass" definition until the US Supreme Court vacated the appropriate legislation set forth by the EPA.

    Point being... all of this is the generation of additional waste stream for fuel, instead of utilizing an existing waste stream for fuel. I applaud the thought and intent, but why not use the garbage we already generate for fuel? RDF (refuse-derived fuel) boilers already exist for electrical generation...

  • by mnemotronic ( 586021 ) <mnemotronic AT gmail DOT com> on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:56PM (#20542791) Homepage Journal
    If BP changes it's corporate directive, or the Jatropha plant isn't the great biomass solution it's touted to be, then we have millions of acres planted with "ugly, fast-growing and poisonous weed" which is "resilient to pests and resistant to drought". Oh, great. While we're at it, let's introduce rabbits like they did into Australia [], and kudzu like in the Southern US []. Don't get me started on Zebra mussles or sea lampreys in the Great Lakes. Ok, so there's not much in the way of swampland in central Africa, but the point is that Really Bad Things happen wherever mankind does something that drastically alters the native environment. I wonder if global warming and increased CO2 will help the plant grow faster and more obnoxious?
  • by h2_plus_O ( 976551 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:57PM (#20542813)
    Yes, but it's much better than anything we're doing right now in the realm of biofuel generation.

    I think the point here is not that any one strategy will solve everything- as you note, it won't. That's no reason to shoot down something better than what we've got.
  • by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:08PM (#20543011)
    Belief in exclusivity is what drives business, and innovation. Giving something away just lowers the apparent value.

  • by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:11PM (#20543045)
    Yeah, cos the price of Diesel will only go down in the future.
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by h2_plus_O ( 976551 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:17PM (#20543167)

    Using hemp as a fuel source would only further contribute to the growing problem of deforestation, something its proponents conveniently ignore.
    Not necessarily. Hemp farmed for fuel could, once it's been processed for oil, be used as a source of fiber- which is one of the primary reasons we cut down trees today. Why would anybody clear-cut forests if hemp fiber was cheaper?
    Hemp makes better paper with fewer chemical processes than wood pulp. It makes an outstanding fabric, and has been demonstrated to produce excellent building material- and it grows much faster than trees. It's a damn shame we've outlawed it.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:17PM (#20543169) Homepage

    Funny how the hemp promoters are uninterested in other coarse-fiber crops, like jute, sisal, kenaf, and manila. Or in other low-cost sources of cellulose, like straw, bagasse (sugar cane after sugar extraction), and similar agricultural waste. No, somehow they're attracted only to hemp.

  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:20PM (#20543193) Journal

    It is a very good biomass source, it grows just about everywhere.

    It's a terrible fuel crop, yeilding far less biodiesel than many more popular options like soy. It's better than corn, but corn is a terrible biofuel crop.

    Your reasons for pushing Hemp surely have nothing at all to do with it's biofuel properties.
  • by jollyreaper ( 513215 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:21PM (#20543201)

    Environmentalists have been shrieking and crying about government funding for alternative fuels, and now that we've rushed to pacify them, we discover it's not such a great investment afterall.

    Well that's what tends to happen when energy policy is influenced by knee-jerk alarmists.
    No, this is what happens when you let big business co-opt a public desire for change and turn it into another money-making scam. People want real alternative fuels, not smoke and mirrors like ethanol. But oh, doing that would actually cost money and eat into profits. Can't have that.
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by chad.koehler ( 859648 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:33PM (#20543431)
    Don't forget that a lot of clear cutting (in tropical areas) is not for fiber but for agriculture. If hemp were more widely used and in higher demand there is potential for MORE deforestation as the price for the easily grown hemp would increase the potential profits from clear-cut agriculture in the rain forests.
  • by Darth Liberus ( 874275 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:39PM (#20543509)
    Yeah, it's like the "medical" marijuana brigade. Stop trying to convince us that hemp/marijuana is the Miracle of Miracles and start telling the truth: you like to get high and the Gummint is wasting my tax money.
  • Re:Done and done. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Maxo-Texas ( 864189 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:46PM (#20543597)
    And when you give them money, you pretty much destroy their ability to self-govern as well.

    If we would just back off for 10 years*, leave africa alone, a lot of people would die but afterwards they would have their act together.

    * including large multi-national quasi governmental corporations.

  • by tepples ( 727027 ) <tepples@gmail.BOHRcom minus physicist> on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:50PM (#20543675) Homepage Journal

    Nobody is forced to use Monsanto's products, right?
    Citation needed. Patent infringement is a strict liability offense. If your neighbor buys land next to yours and plants patented seeds on it under a contract with Monsanto, and some seeds blow over to your property and grow, you may be liable for patent infringement. See Monsanto v. Schmeiser and foreign counterparts.
  • The 85% SOLUTION (Score:5, Insightful)

    by StCredZero ( 169093 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:55PM (#20543735)
    Electric cars with a practical range approaching 200 miles would suffice for most of the driving needs of most of the populace. If people could buy the cars, then subscribe to a battery service, this would enable fast battery module swaps. But most of the time, people would just charge overnight at home.

    The other 20% would still need some form of internal combustion vehicle for dealing with heavier loads. But this would be much easier to provide with biodiesel than all of the vehicular needs of North America.

  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Swaffs ( 470184 ) <> on Monday September 10, 2007 @04:00PM (#20543809) Homepage
    Why would anybody clear-cut forests if hemp fiber was cheaper?

    To make room for more help fields.
  • by non ( 130182 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @04:04PM (#20543865) Homepage Journal
    "What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered."
  • by Comen ( 321331 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @04:04PM (#20543867)
    Ok you got me, I want to smoke the stuff already! and it makes great rope also!
    I see no reason to grow hemp that does not get peopel high, waht a huge waste.
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by h2_plus_O ( 976551 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @04:21PM (#20544157)

    But that doesn't solve the problem of big agribusiness cutting down trees to grow such profitable cash crops.
    True, but that's a different problem, and it's one we've already got (as you point out).

    Using hemp solves a specific set of problems: it's better fuel than corn, better fiber than cotton or lumber, and it grows in places unsuitable for either. It's better than what we've got, and it doesn't introduce any new problems we don't already have. Is it the answer to all our ecological and energy problems? As you point out, no. But it's better than what we've got. We should use it, just like we should also use algae tanks, switch-grass, solar, wave, wind, and whatever else we can that'll be better than what we've got.
  • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @04:41PM (#20544467) Homepage
    The Tesla, a $100k electric sports car with lithium (read: "expensive and problematic") batteries, only gets 200 mi. More realistic electric cars for the general public (with NiMH or some of the reduced capacity but greater safety and lifespan lithiums) are in the 50-100 mile range.

    Yes, that sort of range covers city driving. But people don't like having options eliminated from them, and don't want to have to rent or borrow someone else's vehicle when they need to go long distances. For good reason, too.

    I think the right solution until we can get battery power densities up is that used by the Volt -- a plugin hybrid. There's a small gasoline motor that only runs a generator (so it's light, simple, and cheap), and stays off unless you're going on long trips. When the gasoline motor is running, the car isn't quite as efficient as a normal hybrid, but is still more efficient than a regular car. It's similar to how modern trains work (except they use diesels for the generators).

    Around town, you run on batteries. When you want to go far, you still can. Seems ideal to me until the tech catches up..
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Amouth ( 879122 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @04:47PM (#20544561)
    Simple answer - I live in the south - and if I ever catch someone planting Kudzu on purpose - i will beat the shit out of them.....
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by radl33t ( 900691 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @05:29PM (#20545093)
    Using celulostic conversion processes ... can produce massive ammounts of ethanol easily, efficiently, and most important, cheaply.

    What kind of cellulose processing is that? I don't know of any methods that can do any one of those three, let alone all of them. I claim that processing cellulose, hemi cellulose, and lignin is difficult, inefficient, and expensive. To me, this explains why tech has not developed commercially. Since you deny each of my claims, what do you propose have been the commercial constraints?

    Other than building cellulostic ethanol factories, and some ethanol pipelines, we alredy have everything else (unlike corn, sugarbeets, biodiesel, hydrogen, dirtect electric, or other proposed systems)

    Um except the science. Please forward me to a description of a process that is "easy, efficient, and cheap." No top secret Company X propaganda either please.

    Me and several environmentalist friends have been screaming for years
    Screaming nonsensical claims won't advance your agenda.
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rossifer ( 581396 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @05:35PM (#20545175) Journal

    If we believed that your list was the only way nutrients entered the system, we'd have to believe that Earth had "soil" before life evolved. ;)
    That list is of the means that can supply agriculturally significant quantities of nutrients. i.e. agricultural replenishment. Sure there are other mechanisms that create natural topsoil, but they operate over timeframes that don't permit dedicated agriculture.

    Basically, what this article is saying is that the oil from this weed removes so little nutrients that if you return the remains to the soil, whatever was lost is made up for by various means of natural replacement.
    Yup. And that's a truly extraordinary statement. Not to completely shoot down the possibility that this wonder-weed can do everything claimed. But it would be the first primary crop plant that was actually self-fertilizing.

    I'm just a skeptic. Not that I wouldn't be excited if this stuff was real, but the claims made by the proponents seem way beyond how all other plants work.

  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tburkhol ( 121842 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @06:02PM (#20545463)
    A hectare (2.47 acres) of jatropha produces 1,892 liters (500 gallons) of fuel. 202 gallons per acre.

    The US consumes [] about 400 million gallons of gas and 70 million gallons of diesel per day. At 200 gallons per acre per year, we'd need to plant 850 million acres of jatropha to replace petroleum. According to Google [], that's about 1.3 million square miles, or about a third of the land area of the United States.

    Since we currently only cultivate 440 million acres [][pdf], that would be a significant challenge.
  • by Tim Doran ( 910 ) <timmydoran&rogers,com> on Monday September 10, 2007 @06:48PM (#20545967)
    Somebody mod this up - the current crop of hybrids are a bad idea, designed to sell cars rather than conserve fuel. Your hybrid Camry, Accord or SUV engages the gasoline engine directly through the gearbox to assist in acceleration. This necessarily adds significant complexity and weight and requires a more powerful engine than would be used to simply charge the batteries.

    The parent post talks about the right way to do it - a small, simple gas or diesel engine used only to charge the batteries. No complex gearbox, no need for a lot of power from the engine, no bloat. And the engine can always run at peak efficiency.

    When ordinary small cars get comparable or better mileage than high-tech, expensive hybrids, you know marketing has run amok.
  • by Mr Otobor ( 1097177 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @07:17PM (#20546293)
    Before everyone jumps on the bandwagon it would be good to look for the downsides of this wonderful, almost free, all-natural cure for our ailing internal combustion engines. A cursory look around at some sources (I'll let you do your own homework) will reveal several downsides to this plant.

    Problem number 1: Not really good for anything but fuel. Plants currently grown provide food, clothing, or, in some cases, building supplies. Some plants grown now even provide for multiple outputs. Corn (food, feed, fuel, chemicals) is a great example. Soybeans are another good example.

    Problem number 2: As I'm sure at least a couple of folks will figure out from the numbers, you'd need to grow this stuff on a truly massive scale to put a dent in the amount of hydrocarbon fuel now supplied by petroleum. That scale would be so massive as to make #1 a significant problem. Do you want to eat or drive your car?

    Problem number 3: Some people will look at #2 at either a small or large scale and answer that they want to eat and to drive (or sell fuel to the people that drive). And that will likely mean cutting down and/or burning more forests to make more farmland which seems a bit counter-productive.

    Problem number 4: A high enough demand for biofuel will tip the balance on what gets produced. As acres of land previously growing food are switched over to growing biofuels, the cost of food will rise. There are a couple of ways of looking at or explaining this the easiest being that as the supply of food drops against a constant (or, really, growing) demand the price people are willing to pay for that food rises. In any case, the poorest people, many of them in fact farmers, will then suffer a proportionally higher cost to feed themselves even though they may participate only indirectly in petroleum or biofuel consumption.

    Problem number 5: YAIS (Yet Another Invasive Species). Read about this plant. It is a badass. It's a badass because it comes from a place where hardly anything else can live and all the animals and insects are looking for something, anything to eat. You don't want to plant this in Ohio. Or Brazil. Or China. Or anywhere else that you don't plan on having this as an invasive and problematic pest plant for the next 1000 years.

    F'ed up, huh? I know things like biofuel are meant only to be a stopgap to bridge us over to more efficient and/or less immediately damaging fuel conversion technologies and fuel sources, so it's not 100% right to bash them and say 'This does nothing!' but I think it is useful to play the Devil's advocate given the amount of excitement often heard in the same breath and the corresponding lack of analysis that too often accompanies it.
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by kiracatgirl ( 791797 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @07:26PM (#20546359)
    I'm not a farmer or anything, but you should take into account that most crop plats have entire substantial portions of the plant completely removed. The fruit, the seeds, the leaves, sometimes the entire plant, and so on. In this case, however, all that's being actually removed is the oil from the fruit, and the rest of the fruit is being dropped back on the plants. I don't think there are any other primary crop plants where the bulk of the harvested material is even considered for being used as fertilizer, as the point of a crop plant is that the harvested material is wanted as the crop.

    Not that I'm saying it will work; just that it doesn't seem as blatantly impossible to me as you say.
  • by FrankieBaby1986 ( 1035596 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @09:33PM (#20547543)
    I have been wondering why some of the best technologies haven't been combined yet?

    All-electric drive allows for very efficient accelerating, cruising and regen-braking. (and if four individual motors are used, good traction control).

    Use a plug-in charger and a high-efficiency, smaller, gasoline engine with a generator to extend battery life (not having it run drive train means the engine runs at peak efficiency).

    Charge it at night, or while parked at the lot (run the motor for a little while). The gas engine doesn't have to be big enough to continually power the car, simply to extend the distance to something well within to daily commute.

    Combine that with the 6-cycle engine (injects water into hot cylinder to create steam, adding a second, weaker power cycle re-claiming waste heat), and you should have a pretty efficient hybrid car. Or perhaps use a different power-generating technique involving gasoline.

    I would wager that there are LOTS of people who don't need to go on >200 mile trips very often, and could use such a vehicle quite effectively.

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