Sustainability of biodiesel production using palm oil versus jatropha oil for feedstock

Palm oil and oil from Jatrohpa curcas L. can be mass produced in Malaysia and used for biofuels production.  Lam et al. (2009) used the life cycle assessment (LCA) process to compare the sustainability of this process using each oil for feedstock.  During the LCA, they considered the plantation and cultivation of each crop, the milling, or extraction, of each oil, and the conversion of each oil into biodiesel.  The sustainability measures were based on land area required, net energy consumption, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and CO2 sequestration.  The debate over whether jatropha oil (a non-food crop) should be used instead of palm oil (a food crop) to prevent food prices from rising was also considered.  After the LCA for each case was conducted, the authors found that palm oil required less land, produced a higher output to input energy ratio, and enabled larger amounts of CO2 to be sequestrated.  Thus palm oil is a much more environmentally efficient feedstock for biodiesel production compared to jatropha oil (Lam et al. 2009).— Jenny Ward 
Lam, Man K., Lee, Keat T., Mohamed, Abdul R. 2009. Life Cycle Assessmet for the Production of Biodiesel: A Case Study in Malaysia for Palm Oil versus Jatropha Oil. Biofuels, Bioproducts, and Biorefining. 3, 601–612

 The authors collected data from recent literature reviews and statistics including from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), the Indonesian Palm Oil Board (IPOB), and various previous studies.  For the plantation stage of the LCA, they analyzed yields of oil per tonne of fresh fruit bunch harvested, fertilizer components, energy and water requirements, peatland use, and CO2 emissions.  For the milling stage, the authors compared oil yields from extraction, energy and water requirements, and CO2 and other GHG emissions.  For the conversion of oil to biodiesel, they compared methanol to oil ratios, percentage yields of biodiesel and glycerol, electricity and steam usage, and CO2 emissions from production and transportation of biodiesel.
The Malaysian government is interested in using jatropha oil to supplement palm oil as a feedstock for biofuels production because jatropha is drought-resistant, able to grow on wasteland, and is not cultivated for food use, thus it would settle the “food versus fuel debate.”  Despite the advantages it may seem to have, Lam et al. found that jatropha oil is less efficient than palm oil when cultivated as feedstock for biodiesel production.  Using palm oil as feedstock for the production of 1 tonne of biodiesel would require 0.28 ha of land per year, while using jatropha oil as feedstock would require 0.61 ha per year, a 118% increase.  Agroforestry techniques and livestock crop integrations cannot be applied to jatropha plantation like they can to palm oil plantation, making jatropha less sustainable.  Production of 1 tonne of palm oil biodiesel has an output to input energy ratio of 2.27, while jatropha oil biodiesel has an energy ratio of 1.92.  These data indicate that 1 tonne of palm oil biofuel would provide 43% more energy than 1 tonne of jatropha oil biofuel.  Finally, after comparing emissions from fertilizers, energy usage, land usage, and logistics, both palm oil biodiesel production and jatropha oil biodiesel production processes were found to emit about 11,000 kg CO2eq/tonne biodiesel each.  When using palm oil however, the amount of CO2 sequestrated was almost 20 times more than when using jatropha oil.  Overall, palm oil was significantly more sustainable than jatropha oil as a feedstock source for biodiesel production in Malaysia.  To determine the true sustainability of biodiesel, the life cycle analysis of the feedstock-to-fuel process must be considered in addition to the immediate social and environmental effects of biofuels production.

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