A Chinese energy company in the southwest province of Guizhou is awaiting its first harvest of more than 13,500hectares of a "diesel tree", which will yield 15,000 tons of biodiesel oil for the energy-thirsty country.
"A green diesel oil field is taking shape in the vast mountain areas, and the oil-rich arbor is expected to become a reliable source of biofuel to meet increasing energy demand in China," said He Yuyuan, general manager of Zhongshui Energy Development Co. Ltd., which is based in the land-locked province.
After at least 30,000 tons of Jatroha L fruits ripen next summer, the company will extract their oil, refine it, and sell the biodiesel through the marketing channels of China Petrochemical Corp. (Sinopec), China's biggest oil refiner and petrochemicals producer, under a cooperation deal.
Jatroha, also known as Barbados nut or physic nut, is a perennial, drought-resistant shrub that produces large oily seeds. The oil can be used in candles, soap and now biofuel. The plant, whose seeds have an oil content of up to 62 percent, can adapt to almost any kind of climate or soil conditions and is considered an ideal way to tame the trend of rock desertification, which affects more than 20 percent of the province.
Zhongshui, a leading electricity supplier in Guizhou Province, has been cultivating the diesel tree in the infertile mountain areas of Luodian and Anlong counties since 2004.
Its new refinery, which cost 50 million yuan (6.75 million U.S. dollars), is scheduled to start operation at the end of this month, producing 20,000 tons of biodiesel every year using food waste and Jatroha L as the primary feedstocks.
With a technology independently developed by Guizhou University, the fuel is expected to meet Europe-IV emission standard, according to tests conducted by the labs of Bosch, DaimlerChrysler AG, Royal Dutch Shell Group and Volkswagen.
So far, more than 108,000 ha. of Jatroha L plants are thriving in the provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan, all in southwest China, The total acreage is projected to increase to 1.7 million ha. in 10 years.
The State Forestry Administration (SFA) has reached agreements with China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), Sinopec, China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), and China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corp. (COFCO) to develop biofuel demonstration projects in the three provinces and the southernmost island of Hainan.
Experts have estimated that some 2 million ha. of barren land and mountains in the southwest are suitable for the growth of Jatroha L.
China has been raising oil-bearing trees on some 4 million ha. of land in different regions. More could be planted on 57 million ha. of what is now underdeveloped wilderness, the head of the SFA, Jia Zhibang, has said.
The government plans to cultivate 13 million ha. of high-grade bioenergy forest by 2020, which will yield 6 million tons of diesel, which would be enough to fuel an 11-million-kilowatt power plant, according to a forestation plan compiled by SFA.
Chinese officials have said that the country would increase biodiesel output to 200,000 tons by 2010 and 2 million by 2020. There is no exact tally of current biodiesel production, as it involves a handful of small plants.
Further use of grain for ethanol production has been banned in China to ensure that grain remains available for food.
Jatroha L projects have also attracted foreign investors. For example, an American energy company, Becco Biofuel, plans to invest up to 2 billion U.S. dollars in growing 200,000 ha. of Jatroha L and establishing a 400,000-ton biodiesel refinery in Panzhihua City, Sichuan.
India, Uganda and Vietnam have launched experiments in cultivating the tree under sponsorship from Germany and the United Nations.
India hoped to produce 10 million tons of biodiesel a year in 10 years while the United States planned to increase the output of biodiesel to 1.15 million tons by 2010.
Growing "diesel trees" has helped raise farmers' living standards in areas where incomes are low and the land is poor.
More than 10,000 farmers are being employed by the Zhongshui company to plant the crop. Each household is expected to earn up to 30,000 yuan (more than 4,000 U.S. dollars) per hectare as of next year, when the trees began to yield fruit. Growing the more lucrative crop will almost double their family incomes, which have come mainly from corn, rice and vegetables.
A poverty-relief campaign, initiated by the United Nations Development Program, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Ministry of Commerce last November, will invest 8.585 million U.S. dollars to help farmers cultivating the plant in Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan.
(Xinhua News Agency December 15, 2007)