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Turning to Costa Rica’s plants for biofuel

PURISCAL, San José – An energy farming experiment in the mountains southwest of San José could offer rural communities a sustainable way to produce their own fuel for vehicles and cooking.

Undertaken by farming cooperative Coopepuriscal with support from local energy consulting firm Atlantis Energy, both based in Puriscal, as well as the Environment Partnership with Central America, the Costa Rican Agriculture Ministry and the World Bank, the project aims to create a sustainable small-scale model for farming Jatropha curcas to meet local energy needs.

“What we are doing with jatropha is supporting small communities to become self-sufficient from energy monopolies,” said Ivar Zapp, president of Atlantis Energy.

The jatropha plant is a woody shrub that grows across wide swaths of the world’s tropical regions. It produces a fruit containing several seeds with high oil content. These seeds are pressed to extract the oil, which is used as fuel. Oil straight from the pressing process will run a diesel engine, or it can be processed and mixed with petroleum-based diesel to make a biodiesel blend.

Inventor Rudolph Diesel’s first internal combustion engine ran on peanut oil, not petroleum-based fuels. It is only because of massive economies of scale and global government subsidizing of fossil fuels in the 20th century that petro-based fuels became the world standard. 

Vegetable oils, however, have remained a useful and utilitarian fuel source. As the world recognizes the grim long-term outlook on fossil-fuel reserves, vegetable oils are enjoying a new period of popularity.

In optimal conditions jatropha has been shown to yield more oil per hectare than peanuts, sunflower, soy, corn or cotton. Jatropha industries are springing up in Asia, Africa and Latin America – all with long-term orientation toward sustainable fuels. The plant is hardy and drought-resistant and therefore a go-to choice for areas of marginal land or areas of potential drought. The plant grows wild in most of Central America, but producing plants with optimum yields requires careful cultivation.

Depending on genetics and growing conditions, jatropha seeds may yield up to 60 percent oil by weight.

“I expect about 450 gallons [1,700 liters] per year per hectare,” Zapp said. 

That comes to about 1.4 tons of fuel per hectare per year. Zapp said the project with Coopepuriscal already has a total of about 40 hectares of jatropha in cultivation in seven small communities around Puriscal, for a potential annual yield of 67,000 liters, almost 57 tons of fuel.

“From what I have gathered, about 200 hectares of jatropha production could sustain a community of about 1,000 people,” he said.

Zapp and Geovanny Sánchez, manager of Coopepuriscal, point out that the jatropha project – in its second year of cultivation – is an experiment, and that results are at least a year away. 

“We’re learning as we go along,” Sánchez said in an interview at his office in Puriscal. “Ideally, we would have a culture, like that of coffee production, with hundreds of years of documented experiences, positive and negative, to learn from.”

Part of the experiment focuses on finding the best areas for cultivation in Costa Rica. The seven communities currently cultivating jatropha for the project are located at different altitudes, between 200 and 1,000 meters above sea level. That will help determine the plant’s favored microclimate. 

Another part of the experiment is convincing farmers to take a chance on a plant that will not turn out a marketable product for at least three years. Zapp and Sánchez said the way around that problem is that other crops – particularly beans and plantains – can be grown between rows of jatropha. Faster-to-market products could offset the wait time for jatropha to mature. 

If producers are able to realize optimal oil production, the long-term pay off could be really long: Jatropha plants can produce seeds for up to 50 years.

“When I started this project two years ago, I had no idea how to approach farmers and convince them to invest their time and labor into this,” Zapp said.

The Environment Partnership with Central America helped get the project off the ground by obtaining $60,000 from the World Bank. That money went to provide seeds, information and the initial equipment necessary to get a pilot program started.

With that money and support from Coopepuriscal, Zapp convinced some farmers to give jatropha a shot.

“With energy farming, you think of plants that need lead time to produce. You have to be planning ahead. You have to know that farmers will benefit from experimenting in a few years, and in the future everyone will benefit,” Zapp said.

Sánchez said Coopepuriscal, which ori-ginated as a tobacco cooperative in 1957, encourages associates to experiment with crops like jatropha. The organization’s goal is to help members develop profitable, sustainable agricultural models that directly benefit producers and their families.

 Exploring Community Solutions

When Zapp and Sánchez talk about jatropha’s potential for Coopepuriscal members, they do not refer to large-scale industrialized processes to export fuel. Rather, they discuss ways that small communities can produce their own fuel, even for cooking.

Propane gas, for example, comes in bulky containers, and the cost of bringing it to remote communities is constant and cumulative. Cooking with wood or charcoal is problematic too, because of smoke and the threat of deforestation. 

BSH Bosch und Siemens, a German corporation, uses a stove specifically for jatropha and other vegetable oils. The stove consists of a burner, a tank for the oil and a pump to pressurize the tank. A small amount of alcohol is burned to pre-heat the burner, and then a valve is turned to allow pressurized vegetable oil to flow. It burns cleanly and is completely smoke-free. 

Esteban Díaz, a biologist contracted by Coopepuriscal to work with the group’s farmers, demonstrated the stove for The Tico Times. Two liters of vegetable oil, he said, translates to about 10 hours of smokeless cooking time.

Zapp said BSH Bosch und Siemens developed the stove to encourage farmers to experiment with alternative crops as fuel sources. SHAPE International, a nonprofit organization, donated 20 plant oil stoves and arranged shipment to Coopepuriscal as a way to demonstrate the potential of jatropha as a fuel source. The stoves sell for about $50.

The community, Zapp imagines, would have vegetable oil stoves in most homes and about 200 hectares of jatropha cultivation. Presses for extracting the oil run about $5,000, and the cost could be split up among community members who would cultivate, harvest and process the oil as a community-wide cooperative, he said. Markets exist for jatropha sap and other, non-fuel oils that could add to the crop’s profitability. Left-over “cakes” of biomass produced in the pressing of the plants’ seeds have potential uses as fertilizers or as a means for producing biogas.

In the end, the verdict is still out on the possibilities of Jatropha for Costa Rica’s small farming villages. Zapp points to historical precedent and the plant’s ubiquity across many parts of the developing world where jatropha oil is used for heating, lamps and candles.

“Traditionally, jatropha has survived in the types of communities where we’re introducing it in Costa Rica. Because of the need for energy in very poor communities, jatropha has survived until now,” he said.

On a longer timeline, the potential multiplies. 

“This is the grass roots of future competition with fossil fuels,” Zapp said. 

To learn more, call Zapp at 2416-4017 or email

CORRECTION: SHAPE International, a nonprofit organization, donated the plant oil stoves, not BSH Bosch und Siemens. The story has been changed to reflect the correction.


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