Turning Jatropha Plants Into Biodiesel=$$$ in India

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Have you ever heard of a Jatropha plant? It’s a weed that grows in barren landscapes, needing barely any water and surviving tough soil. Today’s WSJ reports that in India it’s the latest hot topic and thousands of acres are being planted with what was once a worthless weed. It all has to do with biofuels.

Corn, which Iowa is enamored with, produces a barrel of oil for about $80. Jatropha, which has no food value, costs about $43. That’s the key, it isn’t competing with other uses like feedling livestock. So Indian officials, such as the owners of the state railway ministry, have planted the weed along the length of their tracks, and others are finding huge swaths of unfertile land to transform into Jatropha farms.

Think of all the land that we don’t use in the US. India has even more: millions of acres that grow nothing that could grow a crop we can mill into fuel. The pods of the plant have an oil that many Indians used to blow bubbles with when they were kids. People there see this fast-growing weed as a true bridge to tomorrow and are throwing cash into investments in the farms.

One farmer said he used to grow coconuts, but the trees are suffering from lack of water. Now a hearty crop of Jatropha is springing up and it looks like weeds. It will take some years before the market is set, and the farmers can find people to buy their crops. But one firm, Mission, guarantees a profit of about $250 an acre. That’s real money in a place like rural India, and that means we’ll be hearing more about this stuff in the years ahead.