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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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  • Sounds similar (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jtroutman ( 121577 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:38PM (#20542479)
    This sounds like what they are doing [] in more arid regions with Jojoba [], which is similar in that is grows in places other plants won't, requires little water and produces an oil that can power diesel engines.
  • by BUL2294 ( 1081735 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:55PM (#20542773)
    ..."beyond petroleum". But then again, this is the same BP that just lost HUGE in the court of public opinion when everyone in Chicago started complaining about the fact that they wanted to dump more pollutants into Lake Michigan []. Hell, even Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam called attention to it [] at Lollapalooza.

    Frankly, I'm not impressed with BP. This big bad oil company is doing nothing more than chasing the $$$. You'd better believe that if oil prices dropped, they wouldn't hesitate to cancel these programs... Being environmentally conscious is money-making--for the time-being...
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Da3vid ( 926771 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:56PM (#20542793)

    no fertilizer beyond the nutrient-rich seed cake left after oil is pressed from its nuts
    You can't take oil from the plant, use the rest of the plant to grow more plants, take oil from them, rinse, repeat.

    If you're going to take things from the system, you have to add things to the system somewhere. Whether those resources are added naturally or artificially, there has to be input somewhere.
  • by jlcooke ( 50413 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:57PM (#20542805) Homepage
    Allow me to be crack-pot.

    This is old news, like 20 years old. Mainstream old, it's more like 5 years. Still old.

    Real biofuel folk know that Algae is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

    J-plant's seeds are 40% oil. Some breeds of Algae are 50% oil by TOTAL PLANT MASS.

    Not to mention it's the fastest growing plant - faster than bamboo.

    Not to mention it's the easiest thing to grow (water, dirt, shit, sunlight). Just think about how much work people go through to keep it out of a chlorinated pool. What would happen if actually tried to grow it?

    Not to mention you don't need arable land to grow algae - desert works exceptionally well. Beside a nuclear (pr. new-clear) power plant will let you use waste heat to keep the green stuff growing all winter as well.

    Industrial algae production, 100's of hectares of 1m deep concrete pools and greenhouses. Constantly skimming fractions of the population allowing re-growth. We're talking constant production, no expensive equipment to harvest.

    The man doesn't want you to know.
  • by SatanicPuppy ( 611928 ) * <> on Monday September 10, 2007 @02:58PM (#20542823) Journal
    Theoretically it could be used for animal feed...That's part of how it was originally pitched to farmers in the South, that their cows would eat it. Well, they may nibble the leaves, but that's about it.

    Goats, on the other hand, go to fricking TOWN on the stuff...They'll eat it right down to the roots, and can actually permanently clear kudzu from an area making them and napalm the best methods for getting rid of it. Considering how much goats eat, the two could form a hell of a relationship, assuming we could persuade anyone in this country to eat goat.
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jtroutman ( 121577 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:06PM (#20542971)
    Where did you get your figures? I ask because I'd be interested in reading more. What is the cultivation rate? Is that 202 gallons per acre per year? Per season?
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by WalksOnDirt ( 704461 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:29PM (#20543329)

    You can't take oil from the plant, use the rest of the plant to grow more plants, take oil from them, rinse, repeat.
    As long as you are just taking hydrocarbons out you can, since those can be produced from carbon dioxide and water. You're bound to get trace amounts of things like phosphorus, sulfur and potassium in the oil, but if the amounts are small then replacing them is easy. Wind blown dust will do some of that with no effort by the grower.
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:44PM (#20543571) Journal
    Just a week or two back, in my alumni group a friend posted the following info about Jatropha:

    I heard about Jatropha before. While I don't have anything specific to
    say about Jatropha, there are some general comments I have about
    bio-based approaches.

    1. Plants can absorb light only in the range 400nm-700nm, capturing
    only 43% of the of the radiation.

    2. It has to collect CO2, and hence can use only 25% of the available

    3. That brings down the theoretical efficiency of photosynthesis to
    11%. Figure in the absorption of light, and the plant has to spend
    some energy on itself, what it can give you comes down to 6.5% at best.

    I don't how Jatropha compares to algae, but you can can be sure that
    it is not going to exceed 6.5%. Put the fuel in an IC engine, you are
    probably talking 2% efficiency of photon-to-wheels at best.
  • by illegalcortex ( 1007791 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @03:57PM (#20543767)
    My thoughts exactly. The only place I have typically seen goat is at Indian restaurants. As long as it's not too filled with bones and difficult to disassemble (sometimes a problem even at good buffets), it is terrific.
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Sandbags ( 964742 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @04:09PM (#20543967) Journal
    Me and several environmentalist friends have been screaming for years: "Kudzu you assholes!!!"

    Not only is it a weed, it's practically a menace, damned near impossible to kill, grows over acres in a season, requires only rain as it produces its own nitrogen (no fertilizers needed) and grows almost everywhere in the USA and most other countries. It's also NOT poisonous, and actually smells quite nice (I wouldn't make perfume out of it, but at least not offensive).

    Using celulostic conversion processes (like the new facility being built near Atlanta Georgia will be diing using wood from trees) it can produce massive ammounts of ethanol easily, efficiently, and most important, cheaply. It's easy to harvest and transport without complicated equipment (an industrial lawnmower would do just fine). We don't need any massive investments to start doing this TODAY. 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)

    In terms of ethanol per pound of material, it's not the best choice (some forms of algae do better), but in terms of ethanol per acre of land, or ethanol per dollar spent, I challenge you to find anything better!!!
  • by multimediavt ( 965608 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @04:14PM (#20544051)
    Ok folks, we've seen this time and time again throughout history. Someone finds a cool plant that does something wonderful and then mass plants it outside its native habitat and it starts growing wild and taking over native plant stocks. Can you say kudzu!?!?!? I hope someone stops and thinks about this before they take a knee jerk reaction and start commercializing this stuff and we end up with a greater natural disaster than just polluting our environment. This plant sounds very hearty and seems to offer some interesting possibilities, but let's not go off half cocked at every possibility for replacing fossil fuels!
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Rei ( 128717 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @04:33PM (#20544325) Homepage
    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. ;)

    Nutrients come from all sorts of sources. Erosion can lead to dust, and dust deposits provide nutrients (one of the prime seeders of life in the open ocean). Lichen can also break down rock. Microbes and simple abrasion can do their share in more typical farm environments. Then there's the waste and remains of transitory animals (birds, rodents, etc). As for nitrates in particular, there are all sorts of ways they can enter a given patch of soil (for one, they're water soluble...), and plants vary greatly in their need for them.

    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.
  • Another Weed (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Nom du Keyboard ( 633989 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @04:41PM (#20544459)

    jatropha may replace biofuels like ethanol that require large amounts of water, fertilizer, and energy, making their environmental benefits limited.

    Seems to me you can say the same thing about Hemp.

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

    by DerangedAlchemist ( 995856 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @04:42PM (#20544495)

    So what this article is claiming is that the seedcake left over from oilpressing contains all of the nitrogen and other nutrients needed to restore the soil using just technique (2). That's an extraordinary claim. This plant is not a legume or one of the other nitrogen fixing plants [], so by itself, cannot increase the amount of nitrogen in the soil.

    Given jatropha is described as a weed, easily grown in soil too poor(eg. low in nitrogen), rocky or dry for crops , I really doubt this is a concern. Certain plants are so easy to grow, they are damn hard to kill. Ask any gardener.

  • Re:The 85% SOLUTION (Score:2, Interesting)

    by pixelpusher220 ( 529617 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @05:07PM (#20544857)
    In a perfect world I'd agree completely.

    I'd hardly call today's US suburban sprawl *perfect* though.

    We need something that can do the routine driving around town jobs, reliably and efficiently without the negative impacts we're seeing from the internal combustion engine of today. Batteries do have environmental impact, but given how heavily recycled todays car starter batteries are (like 95%) this isn't something that can't be handled.

    200 miles on a charge would go a loooooong way towards solving our foreign fuel dependency too...
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Rei ( 128717 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @05:10PM (#20544899) Homepage
    When people talk about how hemp is good for everything under the sun, it always reminds me of those snake-oil cure-alls hawked by travelling vendors in the 1800s. ;)

    The simple facts are that industrial hemp is a useful product, and it's dumb that it's as regulated as it is, but it's not some sort of miracle plant. Its fibers make good rope, but as far as cloth manufacture goes, it's too coarse for most applications (most hemp fabrics used in clothing and upholstery are blended with linen, cotton, or silk). It's not even a standout, fiber-wise, when compared with jute, sisal, or manila -- similar strength, but hemp is more susceptible to rot. It's hardly the only replacement for wood pulp for the paper industry -- kenaf looks better, for example (whiter (less bleaching needed), higher yield, stronger, cleaner, etc). 15 gallons per acre is pretty absymal for a "next generation" biofuel; switchgrass ethanol is expected to produce hundreds of gallons per acre, and grow on similar "waste" land. Hemp oil is similar to linseed oil -- it dries on contact with air. Great for oil based paints, but not so much for many other oil applications. It also goes rancid relatively quickly, and is poorly suited to frying.

    Yes, hemp has good things about it. And, wow, are they ever trumpetted from the hilltops by hemp advocates. Google search anything related to hemp products -- hemp paper, hemp rope, or whatever, and you'll be treated to result page after result page of all sorts of wild claims from sites like,,,,,,,,,, and on and on. All sorts of "trippy" URLs (often, strangely, with "marajuana" in the URL, despite the invariable repeated pointing out that there's little to no THC in industrial hemp), with "trippy" sites, with crazy claims. You find very little from legitimate sources until you get way down the list, and the picture is no longer completely rosy.

    Seriously -- settle down people. It's a plant, not manna from heaven.
  • by Shatrat ( 855151 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @05:34PM (#20545161)
    If you think hemp isn't course[sic] it is because hemp clothing is generally about half cotton.
    100% hemp is going to feel like canvas, which might have something to do with the fact that the word canvas comes from cannabis.
    Hemp is good for lots of things, but the only logical reason to wear it as clothing is a political statement.
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Rei ( 128717 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @05:38PM (#20545209) Homepage
    It's not really that exceptional; there's even a term for it ("pioneer species").
  • Re:Done and done. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Maxo-Texas ( 864189 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @06:03PM (#20545473)
    I agree. It is a difficult decision.

    You can doom millions of people for generations of torture, starvation, and genocide by helping them.

    Or you can allow a few million of them to die and then they learn to stand on their own feet, stop overbreeding, stop tolerating and supporting screwy belief systems
    * unprotected sex is good!
    * males should have sex with many female partners!
    * It is a good thing to treat women like property and slaves
    * you should have 8 babies even when there is no arable land left!
    * It is best to be evil and corrupt and take all the money and stuff for myself (or my tribe).

    Which is ultimately more compassionate?
    To me a lot of the "aid" we give does immense harm to the people it is supposedly helping.
    I believe letting it fall over as soon as possible is ultimately a lot more compassionate.
    I'm not talking about pushing it over... I'm just saying stop propping a clearly broken system up.
  • Re:Just use hemp. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by h2_plus_O ( 976551 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @07:16PM (#20546275)

    NOTHING is better than what we've got.
    One thing we've got today is corn-based ethanol, soaking up appalling amounts of subsidies, sitting on prime farm acrage. Hemp would, among other potentials, be a much better use of those resources with today's technology. As noted elsewhere in this thread, not a miracle plant, but it is regulated in a dumb way.

    Oil and coal an order of magnitude easier/cheaper to use than anything else.
    Oil and coal are easier and cheaper because:
    • We've already invested in the infrastructure and technology needed to efficiently exploit them, and
    • We don't figure many of the costs of using coal and oil (environmental, health, war, economic, etc) into the real cost- we instead externalize those costs from the way we measure and call it cheaper and better when in fact it is neither.

    Economic growth will slow, and people will starve.
    People are starving today, too- switching to sustainable fuel (if not done moronically, which you seem to suggest is the only way) won't be the cause of it- it'll just be happening at the same time.
    Economic growth is slowing today, as well- some of that due directly to our use of fossil fuels (think: pollution, environment, health care, mercury in food, etc).

    Technology is, I think, the key out: for every gas-pumping job lost (this will probably happen when gas becomes more expensive than the alternatives), there'll be another gained somewhere else- developing infrastructure, technology, installing solar panels or writing software for a domestic energy exchange among micro-producers, whatever. Fuel won't crowd food out in the market, it'll hit the same price ceiling fuel does and people will buy food, or grow it and show a profit- next to food, fuel demand is elastic. As energy production and distribution technology becomes something affordable by the average person (who can't bear the expense of drilling, exploration, transport, refining, etc. themselves) expect to see distributed micro-generation systems that will to some extent democratize the production of energy. To wit, I don't think we're in the best of all worlds and the future is bleak; I think we're pretty hosed now and we can (and will) do better.
  • by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @10:18PM (#20547909) Homepage
    Diesel-electric trains work this way. There's a diesel engine which runs a a constant RPM generating electricity to drive the train.

    The main reason for doing it is that you don't need a gearbox. A train which had to change gears would be a real disaster.

    Electric motors have mountains of torque to get the train moving and the fact that the diesel part runs at constant RPM means the engine can be highly tuned for efficiency.

    I don't know if a car could work this way, but it's a thought.

    If you include some capacitors in the system they could give you a huge push for a quick getaway at traffic lights, overtaking, etc. This would reduce the overall power requirements of the generator and improve efficiency even more.

  • by oni ( 41625 ) on Monday September 10, 2007 @10:34PM (#20548025) Homepage
    Kudzu you assholes

    ok, I'll bite. How do you plan to harvest kudzu? It's not like wheat that just stands up in nice rows ready to be cut. Kudzu wants to climb something. If you plant it in the middle of an empty field it'll spread out, but not get more than two or three inches off the ground until it finds something it can climb. I hardly think the amount of usable biomass you get from something three inches off the ground justifies the cost of clearing the field. When kudzu climbs something, it wraps around it. How do you plan to pull it off a tree without killing the tree?

    I'm not writing you off, I'm just pointing out a problem with your plan. Invent some kind of armature that you can let the kudzu climb, and that you can then get the kudzu off of, and patent it, and I think you'll be on to something.

Lend money to a bad debtor and he will hate you.