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Former weed may fill world's fuel tanks

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• Renova Biodiesel of Brazil is expected to plant 60,000 acres of jatropha, and reports suggest that other oil companies are considering planting nearly 500,000 acres in the next four years.

• D1 Oils, a British company that is considered by many to be the leader in jatropha cultivation, has plantations from Swaziland to Indonesia, and hopes to nearly double its 385,000 acres of jatropha worldwide by the end of 2008.

• The Philippine National Oil Co. recently earmarked $14 million for jatropha planting and production, while Indonesia plans to set up 52 biodiesel plants across the country at a cost of $7.3 million.

The cause of the excitement is both environmental and economic. The European Union has mandated that by 2020 all cars must run on 20 percent biodiesel, which burns cleaner than fossil fuels. A 1998 study, jointly sponsored by the US Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture, concluded that biodiesel reduces net carbon-dioxide emissions by 78 percent compared with petroleum diesel.

Meanwhile, Asian economies are desperately seeking natural resources to support their growth. India, for example, imports 70 percent of its fuel, and its planning commission has prioritized the study of domestically grown biofuels in an attempt to become more self-sufficient.

Jatropha is a natural answer. The leafy bush thrives in arid regions around the equator, has no use as food, and takes little refinement: a hydraulic press to squeeze the oil from the seeds, and a chemical solution to create and filter the fuel. When the necessary infrastructure is in place – sufficient farms, transport routes, and processing plants – jatropha oil could be no more expensive than regular diesel.

"In 10 years, the production prices will not be much different," says Mr. Daey Ouwens.

Along with several other states, Chhattisgarh has responded with massive planting campaigns and incentives for farmers, including 500 free saplings. Sethia received a $250 loan for planting jatropha, as well as a commendation from the state. The problem is, there's no market here in the Indian outback.

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