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ENERGY-BRAZIL: Biodiesel Lubricates Social Inclusion

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 26 2006 (IPS) - The physic nut tree, which has a lifespan of over 40 years, is resistant to drought and benefits small farmers, is a potential source of biodiesel in Brazil, as is the babassu, a coconut palm from the eastern Amazonian region.

Nothing can yet be stated for certain about the physic nut tree, because it is not cultivated commercially in the country, and research into its potential uses only began two or three years ago, said Marcos Antonio Drumond, a forestry engineer with the state Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) at its specialist centre in the semi-arid northeast.

At least two more years are needed to establish the viability of physic nut cultivation, after investigating its productivity in various soil and climatic conditions, the expert told IPS. EMBRAPA is carrying out field trials in four areas with different temperatures, altitudes and rainfall patterns.

The aim is to include the tree among oil-bearing plants that can provide raw material for diesel motor fuel, such as soy beans, castor beans, palm trees, sunflower and cottonseed, as well as animal fats.

In addition to saving on imports of diesel of fossil fuel origin and curbing pollution, the point of the plan is to promote social development by boosting smallholder agriculture.

The Federal University of Tocantins (UFT) is similarly motivated in its research on the babassu coconut, the fruit of a native palm which is abundant in the transitional forests on the eastern and southeastern borders of Brazil’s Amazon jungle region.

Tocantins, a state in north-central Brazil, has abundant supplies of babassu. The local population makes use of all aspects of the tree: from the nuts for food, or the oil which is extracted for various purposes, to the leaves and trunk for building or for craftwork and the coconut husk to make charcoal.

The nut yields 60 percent of its weight in oil, which is why the babassu is an energy source of great potential, and its use in the production of biodiesel would bolster the local economy and contribute to social inclusion, Professor Abraham Giraldo Zúniga, who is coordinating the research, told IPS.

Groves of babassu palms could be “combined with other crops, like peanuts and sweet potatoes, boosting family agriculture,” he said.

The initial phase of the study, on how best to extract the oil, has just been completed. Another innovation in this project is to use alcohol produced from sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batata) for transesterification, the chemical process that transforms vegetable oil or animal fats into biodiesel.

Brazil produces large quantities of alcohol from sugarcane, which is used as fuel for cars. Sweet potatoes are a good alternative as it is a lower-cost crop which gives small farmers an advantage, and can be grown in less fertile soils, according to the UFT researchers.

Brazil’s biodiesel programme got underway last year, with two percent being added to petroleum diesel. This will be obligatory from 2008, and annual demand has already climbed to 800 million litres. In 2013 the mixture will be raised to five percent biodiesel.

Biodiesel is already being produced in the country from castor beans, soy beans, cottonseed and palm oil. The technology to produce this renewable fuel is known and tested; what remains to be done is to ensure sufficient raw materials, after identifying the main sources, Drumond said.

The physic nut tree (Jatropha curcas) belongs to the same family as castor beans and is found all over Brazil, either as solitary trees in courtyards or as part of hedges. Many people report having had a tree for more than 40 years, but its productive cycle and its longevity are not known, the researcher said.

It is thought to be native to Brazil, but some experts point to origins in other South American countries or in Central America. It has an average height of two to three metres, although it can grow as tall as five metres.

It starts bearing fruit from its first year, but full fruiting occurs after four years, according to experience in India, Thailand and African countries, where its oil is also used to make biodiesel, as well as soap and medicines.

It has various common names, including arandi, Barbados nut, purging nut, and tropical physic nut and, in Portuguese, pinhao manso. In Brazil there is also a wild variant which seems to be native to the northeast.

EMBRAPA’s first tests found productivity to be between 500 and 1,500 kilograms per hectare per year, similar to that of castor beans, in semi-arid conditions. For both crops, productivity could be doubled or tripled with irrigation, Drumond said.

The researchers have established that the physic nut has an oil yield of 35 to 40 percent, while the castor bean yields 40 to 50 percent. However, the physic nut has the advantage of providing a lighter oil, “more in keeping with the demands of the European market,” the expert said. It is similar to colza oil, the main source of biodiesel in Europe, he explained.

Castor beans, on the other hand, produce a great deal of glycerine as a byproduct, and the oil has over 400 uses, particularly in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries, and commands good prices. But it must be re-sown at least every two years, which makes production more expensive than the physic nut tree.

Both species require little water, but a prolonged drought can destroy a castor bean plantation, while the physic nut tree drops its leaves and stops fruiting temporarily, and flowers once again when the rains return, Drumond said.

These oil-bearing plants, as raw materials for biodiesel, could provide an economic opportunity for the semi-arid northeast, where 25 million Brazilians live, nearly all of them extremely poor. They cannot be grown, like other crops, as monocultures over large areas, so they can benefit small farmers, and create millions of jobs.

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