Yossi and the beanstalk

Israeli teams researching plants long thought worthless are poised to lead the next great energy wave.

castor plants 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
castor plants 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Shlomi Jonas and Doron Levi are serious about a plant with a funny name. That's because jatropha, an otherwise puzzling and forgettable plant, may be the key to one of the most important alternatives to fossil fuels in the coming years - and because Jonas's and Levi's company, Galten, is at the forefront of making it so. Jatropha is a long-overlooked plant that has recently begun receiving loads of attention. The seeds of the leafy green tree are rich in oil that can be used to make biodiesel, a "green" fuel which offers several benefits over other alternative fuels that are currently popular. It's a perennial plant that can start producing oil in its second year of growth, and will continue to be productive for more than 30 years. It's so tough that it can survive up to three years of consecutive drought, and so versatile that its byproducts can be used to make soap, mulch, herbal medicines and more. Galten is cultivating jatropha on some 200,000 hectares in Ghana, betting on the plant's ability to supply barrel upon barrel of one of the hottest new fuels in the world today. "We are planting oil wells," says Jonas. "It's as simple as that." On the other hand, maybe the prophet Jonah was onto something. He may have wept over the "kikayon" - that is, the castor bean plant - because of the loss of the shade it provided him. But today the humble, inedible plant is receiving high praise for its biodiesel potential. Castor bean seeds contain as much as 54 percent oil by weight, much higher than most plants currently used for biodiesel. In fact, castor bean produces about three times as much oil per hectare as soy bean, one of the most popular biofuel crops. "It's one of the most productive plants, in terms of oil produced per unit of land farmed," notes Dr. Oren Ostersetzer-Biran. He is leading a research team at the Agriculture Ministry's Volcani Center that is working to breed castor bean plants for optimum growth and production. Both jatropha and castor bean are relatively new candidates for farming, so their growth characteristics are still being developed. "The castor bean plant was cultivated for a short while in the '60s, but then it was pretty much abandoned thereafter," says Ostersetzer-Biran. "So we're really starting off from zero." Already, he says, castor bean can produce about 100 kilograms of oil per dunam per year. His team's experiments in the fields in Beit Dagan, outside Rishon Lezion, will soon double that, he says. Here's an example of how they're accomplishing that: In nature, the plant's seed sacs pop open so the seeds can scatter. It's an evolutionary development that helps the plant survive and spread. In terms of industrial production, though, it's counterproductive for efforts to collect the oil-rich seeds. So the Volcani researchers are breeding castor plants in which that genetic trait is suppressed. Likewise, they are developing plants that grow a larger number of seeds, in closer bunches, than the wild natural variety, whose home habitats include Israeli roadsides and neglected lots. All these things together, the researchers hope, will make the harvesting of castor bean seeds easier, faster and more lucrative. A similar process is at play with Galten's jatropha plants, with a castor oil biodiesel venture in Namibia run by three other Israeli companies working in cooperation and with a number of other oil-rich plants in labs and fields around the world. There's a race, then, to see who can breed the most productive plants the fastest. Galten and the Volcani researchers believe they are several steps ahead of their competitors in making that happen. THE SEARCH for alternatives to petroleum springs mainly from two concerns: the impact of carbon emissions from the use of fossil fuels, blamed for global warming in the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report of 2007, and most countries' unsettling dependence on fossil fuels for energy. A recent EU study found that biofuels lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and that this benefit will only improve as the fuels continue to develop. But getting in on the biofuels boom is about more than lowering carbon emissions and diversifying energy sources. It is "green" in the business sense, too. Recent legislation in Europe and the US mandates increased biofuels consumption, which means a guaranteed market. In 2003, the EU set a goal for biofuels use of 5.75% of total consumption by the end of 2010, and even higher afterward. In America, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandates biofuels consumption of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. Even if those targets are not ultimately met - and at the current rate of implementation, they will not be - they will at least have provided a significant push to the biofuels industry. In fact, they already have. If a company were to target just commercial trucking and municipal buses in the US, for example, it would be looking at a market that has jumped in the past few years to more than 1 billion gallons annually. And with the world biodiesel market averaging roughly 40% annual growth, global consumption is estimated to exceed 40 billion gallons within the next decade. In addition to trucking and personal automobiles, in the next few years trains, aircraft and home heaters are also likely to enter the picture as biodiesel applications, each with tremendous business potential. So, there is definitely a market. But can it be profitable? Absolutely, insiders say. "Most people make the mistake of assuming that petroleum has to be a certain price for us to make money. They're wrong," says Galten's Levi. "If a company in Europe has to buy biodiesel because of the EU mandate to do so, then our oil is not in competition with petroleum, it's in competition with other biodiesels. When we went ahead with our plans to produce oil from jatropha, oil was at $50 a barrel. Since then it has gone up and come back down, but it doesn't really matter. The factors that make biodiesel profitable have to do with the costs of production, not the price of petroleum." Currently, Ostersetzer-Biran says, the price of castor bean oil is relatively high because it is in demand for use in plastics. But he believes that with larger-scale production and the advances that he and his team are making in breeding the plant, the price of production should fall considerably. CURRENTLY, ETHANOL is king of the biofuels. But its reign looks to be a short one. Based on plants such as corn and sugar cane, ethanol is produced by the fermentation of sugars into an alcohol that can be added to regular gasoline. It's extremely popular in Brazil, which is rich in sugar cane, but is rapidly losing ground in the US, which relies on corn for the fuel. In addition to questionable benefits-versus-costs calculations, ethanol production has caused an acute crisis in food prices, especially as corn, a key food crop, has been turned into a fuel, causing corresponding spikes in other commodities. On top of that, ethanol's net energy savings is being challenged; new research suggests that it may actually take more energy to produce than it saves. Biodiesel made from soy beans has many of these same downsides. But so-called second-generation biodiesels, made from plants such as jatropha and castor beans, do not. They are made from inedible crops, and they don't compete for farmland, as they are suited to grow on poorer-quality land that would otherwise not be farmed. Oils used for biodiesel - including palm oil, soy bean oil and the seeds of jatropha and castor bean - are cheaper to produce than ethanol, they don't evaporate as easily as ethanol does, and they produce more energy per weight. One benefit specific to castor-based biodiesel is that it has a much higher "flash point" than petrodiesel, meaning that it is less likely to cause an explosion if a car is in a collision. For all these reasons, the US is beginning to shift from ethanol to biodiesel. Europe, meanwhile, is already pretty heavily invested in biodiesel. HOWEVER, BIODIESEL is not a perfect solution to the fuel puzzle. Jatropha is a labor-intensive crop, as each fruit ripens at a different time and needs to be harvested separately. It is an ancient plant but it has never been fully domesticated, Jonas concedes - which means that there can be large differences in oil volume and quality from one plant to another. At Volcani, Ostersetzer-Biran's team is experimenting with a dozen or so varieties of the castor bean plant, selected from among some 150 different varieties from all over the world, to breed plants that will grow tall enough and uniformly enough to make mechanical harvesting feasible, and to do so with reliable quality control. Another issue related to supply is the fickle nature of farming. One benefit of petroleum is that, rain or shine, it flows. Farming, though, is heavily dependent on weather and other environmental factors. Is Galten concerned about how a harsh winter, for example, or a sudden drought, could impact production? "There's a risk in any farming venture," Jonas acknowledges. However, he says, "the plant is extraordinarily robust, and the conditions in Ghana are both highly conducive to jatropha growth and very unlikely to suffer setbacks. The plant is resilient to disease - ironically, because of its toxins, which also make it repellent to animals." The conditions in Ghana are not just "highly conducive to jatropha growth," as Jonas says. They're also highly unusual, as Levi testifies. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post from the sprawling fields that Galten controls, Levi describes an environment far removed from the central Israel home base of his company. "We deal with three or four local chiefs, and you have to sit with them in these elaborate ceremonies that last for hours," he explains. "There are special rites that you have to learn, like pouring out water before you drink, to show that you respect the land. Some of our contracts are signed with fingers, not pens. It's definitely a long way from the board rooms of Tel Aviv, and it takes patience." Those tribal chiefs, Levi continues, are concerned first and foremost with providing employment for their people, whether it's efficient for the business or not. "And we're okay with that," he says. The company hires hundreds of locals because "the people here have the know-how to work the fields. We bring them the opportunity to work and make money. At the same time, we are making use of land which otherwise would have no use. It's good for everyone." The "Israeliness" of the company, Levi says, "is not expressed by having Israelis grow the plant, but by the fact that we have brought our technology and know-how to those who are growing the plant." Galten chose Ghana for its political stability, but also for its lush fields and warm climate. "It's perfect," Levi continues. "Yesterday morning, it was hot as hell. Then at two o'clock, it was raining like crazy. A few hours later, there were clear skies. With a climate like this, you don't need sophisticated irrigation methods. All we have to do is to invest some money, clear away some land and plant the seeds. Then keep doing it. It's like when you know exactly where oil is, and all it takes is some time and effort to get it out of the ground." There is competition for superiority in the jatropha market, especially from India. The government there has earmarked some 11 million hectares of land that are suitable for jatropha cultivation, and it has embarked on an ambitious project to grow the plant along the length of the railroad from Mumbai to Delhi. "Actually," says Levi derisively, "the Indian government's plan is based on encouraging small farmers to grow enough for themselves, then sell any excess they have. That's not the right model for mass production." In addition, there is a growing sense, revealed in the reports of several energy investment companies, that much of the press on jatropha thus far has been more hype than reality. "You can't believe everything you read on the Internet," scoffs Jonas. "We have actually called up some of the companies claiming to be cultivating jatropha, companies that are raising lots of money around the world based on the claim that they are growing jatropha, and asked to order oil. Quickly it became clear that they're not close to producing oil, or that they're really just small-time farmers. "In the end they don't really grow jatropha, but work primarily with other alternative fuels. They just don't have the know-how and experience that we have," he says. While that remains to be seen, Levi claims that Galten will be able to put its first jatropha-based biodiesel on sale by the middle of next year. The company already has in place a draft contract with two large companies for the sale of oil produced, one with a major Brazilian firm and the other with a European refinery. At Beit Dagan, Ostersetzer-Biran explains that Israel is not meant to be the center of biodiesel production. Rather, Israeli research will produce the most efficient and desirable plants, which will then be marketed around the world to anyone wishing to capitalize on the coming biodiesel craze. And while the "winning formula" is yet to be found, the seeds of success have already been planted here. Pros and cons of biodiesel made from jatropha or castor oil Pros: • Reduced dependence on fossil fuels • Lower carbon emissions than petrodiesel • Cheaper than petrodiesel • Higher production per hectare than soy or corn • Uses marginal land, creating no competition for food crops Cons: • Crop yields and quality vary widely • Clearing forest or draining wetlands to plant biodiesel crops would offset the fuels' environmental benefits