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Jatropha research could provide key for future of biofuels

South East Asia: Work being carried out by an international student at Newcastle University could transform the biofuels industry by refining the process of converting a common shrub into oil.

Farizul Kasim from Malaysia is completing his PhD in Chemical Engineering at Newcastle University, looking at developing a new method of extracting oil from the Jatropha Curcas plant.

It has been known for some years that jatropha-derived biodiesel could become a significant biofuel. In 2007 Goldman Sachs named it the most likely product to be successful of all the potential fuel crops.

But until now there have been several obstacles stopping the technology developing, the main one being the cost of preparing the jatropha seed to undergo the refining process. This is both time-consuming and energy-intensive as fatty acid content has to be reduced before the oil can be extracted.

At present the seed has to be crushed and the oil extracted using a solvent before being processed. Both are costly and energy-intensive techniques.

That may all change however, if the promising research proves successful. Farizul, who completed his first degree at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, is working on a new technique to develop a way of getting biodiesel directly from the seed of the plant, thereby entirely missing out the solvent extraction and crushing steps. He said: “My method cuts out at least two of the stages. Preparing the jatropha for extraction takes up 70% of the energy costs from the whole process. So we can make jatropha fuel much cheaper if this comes off.”

Jatropha is an attractive option for a biofuel, as it grows on very marginal land in tropical regions, meaning that it doesn’t compete with farming crops. That makes it potentially a better option than plants such as palm oil, which is currently used for a lot of biofuel worldwide, but leads to substantial rainforest destruction.

Jatropha is also toxic so there is no conflict with food production, as there is with palm oil or other biofuels like rapeseed.

Farizul, who worked as an academic at the Universiti Malaysia Perlis, before coming to Newcastle, said: “My technique works by creating a chemical reaction with methanol in the seeds, in effect combining the whole process into one reaction. It is very quick and easy to do. We just need to develop a way of scaling up the process, so we can start to make industrial quantities of jatropha oil at reasonable prices.

“There is a lot more we can hopefully do with this technique and that is something I will hopefully be able to develop in future years.”

Dr Adam Harvey, Reader in Process Intensification at Newcastle University, said: “Farizul’s work shows real promise and there is the potential for jatropha to become a major biofuel if it can be developed to larger scales.

“He is a keen student who is helping develop this new way of refining jatropha which has got the potential to really change the way we look at biofuels. It is still in the early stages yet and there are still some hurdles to be overcome, but I’m hopeful his work will be a success.”

published on: 5 February 2012