After demonstrating the process at a small scale, UOP has now developed a pilot scale plant that produces thousands of gallons of fuel–enough for the commercial airliner demonstration. Holmgren predicts that production by refiners could quickly grow, reaching billions of gallons within five years.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to reaching such levels will be acquiring enough of the jatropha feedstock. The perennial shrub hasn’t been farmed, says Roy Beckford, a researcher at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, although initial efforts in this direction have started. “It’s very much still an undomesticated crop, so yields are going to be variable,” he says. “You cannot predict what is going to happen, as you can with domesticated crops like corn or soy.”
Nevertheless, Beckford says that studies of jatropha shrubs, which can eventually grow to nearly 20 feet tall and can produce fruit for 50 years, suggest that even the worst plants will produce 100 gallons of oil per acre–significantly more than soybeans can. With cultivation and careful breeding, this could easily reach 600 or more gallons per acre–about as much as oil palms produce, he says. Once farmers start planting the shrubs, they will start producing oil in significant amounts in two years and reach maturity in three to four years–much faster than with palm. Harvesting the oil will likely be easy, Beckford says, by adapting machines made for harvesting crops such as olives and coffee.
Beckman says that jatropha can bring significant environmental benefits. It can replace jet fuel and diesel from petroleum without interfering with food crops or leading to the clearing of forests. “The good thing about jatropha is that you’re producing a tree shrub that lives for a long time and does its job, producing oil, while it also sequesters lots of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” he says.
Jatropha is not the only option for UOP, which has tested the process with other vegetable oils and says that it could be compatible with oil from algae as well. The company plans to start licensing the technology starting the first quarter of next year.