In August I expressed scepticism that a biodiesel plant whose construction had been crawling along for years was likely to be finished any time in the foreseeable future. I was reacting to a Herald story, which mentioned that construction was going well and that hundreds of thousands of jatropha-based biodiesel were expected from the plant when it was fully functional. The gist of my post was that despite the story’s optimistic tone, there were a lot of little things in it that didn’t add up to justify that optimism.
Well, three months later The Herald has come back to report that the biodiesel plant has now been commissioned by Mr. Mugabe.
Government will today launch Zimbabwe’s first commercial biodiesel plant set to ease the current fuel shortages significantly.
The plant, the first of its kind in Africa and only one of the five in the world, is the brainchild of joint efforts between the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and Korean investors who developed the technology.
It uses oil seeds for feedstock, and can process sunflower, jatropha, cotton seed and soya to produce biodiesel. Jatropha is likely to be the major feedstock at the moment.
The biodiesel, which burns just like petroleum diesel in unmodified diesel engines, can be mixed with petroleum diesel or burned on its own. Initial production is likely to be at least enough to cope with demand in the agricultural sector.
Finishing touches were yesterday being put on the project, funded by RBZ. Sources close to the development were yesterday upbeat that it would transform Zimbabwe’s economy in a big way.
The project is a culmination of years of research. In 2004, RBZ commissioned a biodiesel project at the Harare Polytechnic under which it procured a test vehicle, bio-reactor chemicals and other logistical support facilities, culminating in the “convincing” certification that biodiesel was a feasible option for Zimbabwe.
The project will not just benefit the fuel sector, but is expected to have a positive impact on the rest of the economy as well through the creation of synergies.
Farmers are set to benefit from this development through an expanded ready market for oil seeds. Industry in general and the motoring public are also expected to operate better after the launch. The plant is being commissioned just in time for the festive season and the beginning of the summer cropping season, periods during which demand for fuel is very high.
This is indeed a great development all Zimbabweans should be cautiously excited about. Biodiesel, especially from jatropha, is all the rage now in the energy sector, although there are still more questions than answers about yields, viability and so on. The Herald being The Herald, would obviously not tell us the still very experimental nature of jatropha projects, despite the billions being invested into it world-wide. There is a lot of excitement everywhere, but there is not yet anywhere that jatropha oil is fuelling any significant proportion of vehicles.
That it is a clean-burning oil that works to power vehicles was known long before the “RBZ commissioned a biodiesel project at the Harare Polytechnic” as The Herald dutifully writes in an article that reads suspiciously like a public relations piece for the RBZ! Whether jatropha is the next best thing since sliced bread is no longer a question of whether the oil can power a vehicle, but will depend on issues of agronomy and economics.
Will the yield of seed per hectare be such that it will be commercially viable to grow it for oil extraction? What are the optimal growing conditions for commercially viable yields? This basic fact is still to be discovered because until the recent biofuels craze, jatropha has almost always been grown in marginal conditions. Its ability to grow in poor soils and its drought-tolerance have made it prized as a “live fence” against animals encroaching on crops or homesteads, and as an effective windbreak. But the new trend of growing it mainly for its seed oil will require the same kind of meticulous crop husbandry as any other commercial crop, if it is to produce the desired yields. This means adequate water, soil fertility (unfortunately in Zimbabwe this is taken to necessarily and only mean synthetic fertilizer, an issue I will sound off on some other time), to mention just two requirements. All these questions are just being answered now in places like India, where pioneering work on growing jatropha for oil is being done, with the results not as conclusively positive as many would like to be the case.
A jatropha variety that grows very well might not necessarily yield economic oil percentages in its seeds. And even when oil content is high, the economic viability of jatropha projects will depend on a whole chain of other factors. Just as being food self-sufficient is not simply about having “the land,” hoping to power a nation’s fleet of diesel vehicles is about far more than launching a factory.
So to “launch” the plant does not necessarily mean anything. It could just be a publicity stunt by the RBZ, with the non-technical Mr. Mugabe being willing pulled along as a valuable prop in the whole drama.
The last line of the story raises my usual suspicion even higher by suggesting that the jatropha biodiesel benefits could be felt by motorists as early as the end of year holiday traveling season just a few weeks away! For me, at that point the story crosses the bounds of being a rather over-done, planted corporate “spin” story for the RBZ to being outrightly irresponsible, in a manner unfortunately no longer unusual for The Herald. Without quite coming out to say so, they want to suggest to the reader that he might be driving on jatropha biodiesel by Christmas!
Even if the factory has been “commissioned,” where are the thousands of tonnes of high oil-yielding seeds going to come from when there are few large plantation of jatropha plantings in the country, if any? Even if everything worked perfectly, it is going to be many years before the plant has enough raw material to make even the slightest dent in Zimbabwe’s fuel requirements.
But maybe I’m just being defensive because a plant I predicted would never be completed is apparently ready. And maybe The Herald was withholding all the juicy details an inquiring mind would want to know about the factory for the actual launch. Maybe The Herald knew Mr. Mugabe would fill in the many missing details in his official launch speech and didn’t want to pre-empt him.
Unfortunately, none of the foregoing appears to be the case. According to The Herald’s (Nov16) report of Mugabe’s speech, it was more the usual “the whole world is out to get us because we took the white folks’ farms” than it was any revelation about the current capacity of the plant and many related issues.
Zimbabwe will not collapse… Mugabe said challenges brought about by the sanctions had instead motivated Zimbabweans to think outside the box.
… we have demonstrated that the dark clouds of our hard times … sown by Western destructive forces, have their silver lining by … strengthening our resilience … deepening our scientific research and stimulating our innovativeness.
Stirring stuff, I can’t wait for the details of what he’s talking about, let me quickly read on for them…
“I am informed that … this plant will, at full capacity, yield 100 million litres of diesel per year, meeting virtually all the agricultural sector’s diesel requirements ….”
Wow, now I’m getting really excited! But when is it expected to reach “full capacity?” Next year? Two, five, 20 years from now? And given the embarrassing yawning gap between cultivation forecasts for various crops over the last several years of crisis, should we put any more trust in the ability of any branch of Mr. Mugabe’s government to make even half-way accurate guesses about how much jatropha seed would be required to reach “full capacity?” Let’s read on…
At least 500 tonnes of seed oil would be required annually to produce the targeted 100 million litres of bio-diesel.
This works out to one tonne of jatropha oil producing 200, 000 litres of biodiesel. Now, current global jatropha yields are about seven (7) tonnes of seed per hectare. That seed is on average 30% oil. So the one tonne of oil that produces 200,000 litres biodiesel would be derived from the raw material of three (3) tonnes of jatropha seed. (I don’t know if the 30% is by volume or by weight, but for simplicity I am going to assume that it is by weight, and also that the specific gravity (SG) of jatropha is about the same as that of water, so that a litre of jatropha would weigh about a kilo. Jatropha SG is in fact about 0.9, about 10% less than water, so I’m not far off.)
The Herald also tells us, “ Zimbabwe also becomes the first country in the world to produce bio-diesel with a bio-purity level of virtually 100 percent. Germany has a bio-purity level of 75 percent while other European countries range from 2 percent to 20 percent.”
All I can say is, if only the RBZ scientists could display the same innovation in reducing inflation from 14,000% as they obviously have displayed in making biodiesel! I had no idea we had such genius at the RBZ, as The Herald story carefully tells us several times in the story.
Anyway, with these basic facts, what can we glean from the 100 million litres of biodiesel per year Mr. Mugabe promises us will come pouring out of the newly “launched” plant? When it is fully operational of course, whenever that might be.
Without boring the reader with the rather straightforward calculations, here are the equivalences I end up with, based on the RB…oops, I mean The Herald’s figures:I hectare jatropha=7 tonnes seed=2.1 tonnes oil=2100 litres biodiesel.
So, in short, one hectare of jatropha would yield about 2000 litres biodiesel. This is definitely on the high side, especially considering I calculated using 30% oil content for the seed. It would be even higher if I calculated using the 40% oil that some varieties of jatropha are said to contain in their seed. We don’t know which percentage Mr. Mugabe, RBZ & Co. are using in their astonishingly optimistic yield projections. (In fairness to Mr. Mugabe, he was just reading the speech that was placed before him, so perhaps his main fault here is just being rather gullible.)
What do I mean by “on the high side?” By comparison to the fantastic figures of Mugabe, RBZ & Co., read the words of someone who is an actual scientist:
Last month, the president of the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences, Christopher Chetsanga, said that “It is important for Zimbabwe to engage in the development of biotechnology energy crops such as jatropha, soyabeans and sugarcane so that the country can quickly work towards reducing the amount of fuel that it is importing by systematically replacing it with biofuels. Cuba is already working with a Jatropha variety that can yield 1,500 litres of biodiesel per hectare. This is a good model for Zimbabwe to emulate.”
I got this from Biofuels Digest.
So Mugabe, RBZ & Co., non-scientists who have launched a biodiesel plant but do not have the raw material for it yet, already know that our small scale farmers all over Zimbabwe, struggling with fertilizer for maize as it is, will grow high-quality jatropha producing 2000 litres of biodiesel end-product per hectare. We don’t know anything about the variety of jatropha, the growing conditions (Irrigation or rain-fed? If the latter, what happens to yields in drought years? Fertilizer or no fertilizer? How could it be the former when we can’t supply enough fertilizer for maize for food? If it is the latter, how are they expecting to get higher than global average yields without fertilizer? Do we have enough manure for the hectarages required?)
Professor Chetsanga (PhD. Biochemistry), thinks that a yield of 1500 litre biodiesel per hectare of cultivated jatropha would be “a good model for Zimbabwe to emulate.” But the learned professor is way behind the crack “scientists” at the presidential palace, the RBZ and The Herald, who, years before there is any significant mature jatropha in the country to speak of, have already convinced themselves of far higher yields than the long-experienced Cubans!
Trying for a measure of energy self-sufficiency is a good thing. Despite the secrecy around this project, it is a laudable effort, but one that will realistically remain experimental in important ways for many years to come. It would have been more prudent to base calculations of what would be achieved more modestly, to take into account the many things that will go wrong as the whole jatropha value chain goes through its learning curve. We have seen all this over-excited guessing game in regards to crop yields that the country came nowhere near achieving.
I’m being even more long-winded than usual, but you can see where I’m going with this. While I would very much like to see Zimbabwe making serious headway with biofuels, I am “reserving” judgment on what is being painted as a brilliant triumph by the Reserve Bank long before we have any serious jatropha harvests! Actually, the prematurely high projected yields for a process that would take years of experimentation to get right even if these were normal times in Zimbabwe, and the secrecy about so many other basic details to do with this factory make me doubt what exactly the “launch” signified, if anything at all.
Does “launch” here biodiesel is now being regularly produced, or does it mean something much less?
I have many other questions, but already I am inclined to believe the “launch” was more publicity stunt than anything concrete.
After the recent embarrassment of being conned by some crooked smooth operator who convinced them diesel could be squeezed out of a rock, I wonder if Mugabe & Co. have not fallen for yet another fuel scam.