Who would have believed that a humble, unassumingly little seed would be the stuff biofuel legends are made of and have the ability to power the kings of the sky?

In 2008, the seed of the Jatropha plant was used as an ingredient in a 50:50 biodiesel, jet A1 fuel cocktail in one of 4 engine fuel tanks.  This mixture was used to power an Air New Zealand 747-400 aircraft (amongst a handful of others) in a bid to test its viability as a potential replacement for jet fuel, with encouraging results, it withstood the usual pressures that come with high altitude flying.

Jatropha curcas is fast becoming a major contender for the title of biofuel heavyweight champion.

Father Inacio Almeida of Goa, Southern India nicknamed the “priest of biodiesel” has been praising the Jatropha plant for the past 6 years for its ability to replace regular gasoline.

What makes Jatropha special is that it’s very robust and can grow in arid conditions with little maintenance.  It has a high tolerance to heat and can withstand light frosts.  It can also grow in saline environments and in soil that is deficient in nutrients producing seeds for up to 50 years at a time, making it the ideal solution for natural, clean burning sustainable fuel.  So confident with the test results that Air New Zealand believes that future aircraft travel will no longer contribute to global warming and that passengers can travel guilt free.

Another advantage of Jatropha is that it doesn’t need to use the precious, nutrient rich space reserved for food crops due to its ability to flourish in low nutrient conditions while encouraging diversity of income for local farmers yielding around 2,000-4,000, or more tons per hectare with the potential creation of some 18,000 jobs.

The reason why Jatropha is a of hub of interest lately is because it can be a viable replacement for regular diesel and requires minimal processing.  So potent and accessible is Jatropha that it contains up to 40% oil content that can be extracted from its seeds and used immediately without processing, unlike regular fuels in the extraction of diesel, heating is required for fractional distillation to separate petrol from its petroleum by-products.  This means that Jatropha is so concentrated that technically you should be able to crush and extract the oil from the seed and use it immediately in a diesel powered engine.  The obvious benefit with the less processing is the less energy and emissions associated with its creation.

After oil extraction, its pulp doesn’t go to waste either, it can be used as fertilizer and makes for a good, natural insecticide, an environmentally conscious fuel with no waste or harmful by-products that does not contribute to CO2 emissions, a dream come true for the aviation industry.

There are 3 non-negotiable requirements that Air New Zealand have for the use of Jatropha

1. The land the Jatropha is grown on is not to be virgin or forest land

2. Environmentally sustainable and grown on land not suitable for crop growing

3. Rain fed and not artificially irrigated

Air New Zealand is confident that they can replace 10% of their regular jet engine fuel with biodiesels by 2013.  Because the average Jatropha yield takes 2 to 5 years, Air New Zealand believes that they will be ready to implement Jatropha fuel on a grand scale by the time it can be grown in volume to keep up with aviation industry demand.

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