Fueling the Future? the Hunt for a Sustainable Biofuel

Article excerpt

The wind blowing through LaBelle, Florida was soft and warm. Large, billowy clouds hung above Mark Dalton's 10-acre field, dappling it with shadows. The field, planted in January 2008, was a regiment of seedlings standing erect in the sandy soil--precisely 2,125 plants lining each of the 364 rows. Dalton kneeled and pointed at a six-inch-tall sapling. Two of its three small leaves were round and yellowish green; the third emerged from the shoot's tip purplish and pointy, a sign the plant was thriving. In 18 months, the shrubs will be about four feet tall, leafy, and dotted with muscadine grape-like fruit. Hidden inside the bitter fruit will be the plant's treasure--three oil-yielding seeds.

Dalton's crop is jatropha curcus, a perennial shrub native to the tropics. When pressed, the plant's seeds release a hefty amount of oil that can be processed into a fuel used in diesel engines. Jatropha is one of the "highest yielding oil crops, and, unlike most plants grown for biofuels, it thrives where others cannot. It requires modest amounts of fertilizer, grows in marginal soil, is pest resistant, and needs to be planted only once every 50 years. It can go without a drop of water for six months, although 12 inches of rain a year is ideal for steady growth.

Indigenous Peoples of Central America used its long-burning seeds as candles. Today; in parts of Africa and India, jatropha is grown as a living fence. The plant goes by many names, including Barbados, physic, and black vomit nut, for its purgative properties. Some have called it a "miracle plant."

Like many biofuel entrepreneurs, Mark Dalton and his brother Paul, the founders of My Dream Fuels, call jatropha their liquid gold. The Daltons are unlikely environmental pioneers. Paul used to be an attorney Mark is an ex-navy photographer and all-round handyman. Neither of them are eco-geeks, but both believe that jatropha can contribute to the world's energy mix in the 21st century. And they are not alone. University and corporate researchers say that jatropha and other biofuels could help wean America from its dependence on fossil fuels, cut carbon emissions, and buy time to design a low-carbon economy.

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Many others aren't so sure. A growing chorus of critics say biofuels will continue our consumption-based lifestyles, usurp agricultural land used for growing food, and increase carbon emissions.

Biofuels, once heralded as the path to a sustainable future, are now at a crossroads as people question whether using plants for fuel will be an eco-solution or an environmental disaster.

Growing Gas

As farmers around the globe rush to plant corn, soy, sugarcane, and oil palm to be made into fuel, concerns about biofuels are escalating. Much of the worry centers on the trade-off between using land for fuel versus food. As biofuel production soars, so in turn, do global food prices. Although it's difficult to calculate the exact extent to which biofuels are responsible for the rise in food prices, researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute deduced through modeling that 25 to 33 percent of the increase in food prices between 2000 and 2007 appears to be driven by biofuels.

Another concern is deforestation. "Brazil is chopping down the Amazon, Argentina is tearing up the prairie, and Malaysia and Indonesia are chopping down forests and burning up peat bogs for sugarcane and palm," says Eric Holtz-Jimenez, the director of Food First. 'And it's not even about a renewable future. It's about the South growing fuel for the North."

In the US, a portion of the country's corn harvest has long been used to produce ethanol. But the nation's race for biofuels didn't really start until 2006, when President Bush used his State of the Union Address to advocate for a dramatic increase in biofuel production as a way of reducing reliance on foreign oil. When Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the Renewable Fuel Standard set a target of 715 billion gallons of biofuels by 2012 and at least 36 billion gallons by 2022. …