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By Robert Rapier on Apr 3, 2008 with 3 responses

The Diesel Tree

Naturally, something like a “diesel tree” is going to catch my attention. (The scientific name for the tree, as best as I can ascertain, is Copaifera langsdorfii, and is native to South America). I have been intrigued by this plant since I first heard about it, but haven’t run across a wealth of information. Thanks to Bob Rohantensky for bringing the following story out of Australia to my attention:

Qld farmers invest in diesel-producing trees

Farmers in North Queensland are doing their bit to be environmentally friendly by investing in a tree that produces diesel.

Over 20,000 trees have been sold to farmers in the tropics by the man who introduced the diesel tree from Brazil.

The tree produces an oil that can be extracted, filtered and used to power vehicles and farm machinery.

It is estimated a one-hectare crop could produce enough fuel for an average-sized family farm.

That’s promising if true. Of course questions are going to abound. Here are some of the preemptive answers from the article:

Mr Jubow says one hectare can produce around 12,000 litres of fuel per year.

“Last year we sold around about 20,000 of these trees. This year we’ll sell probably similar figures, but we could sell more except that we can’t get enough seed out of Brazil,” he said.

He says the trees need a lot of water to grow.

So, there’s the yield (at least one man’s opinion of yield) and the fact that they take a lot of water. So, not a good option for areas that don’t receive a lot of rainfall.

“There is a world-wide database on plant species that have been known to become pests. This plant is not on that list.”

For reference, Australia has placed jatropha on its invasive species list.

He says farmers who want to grow the trees need to know what they are doing.

“It is a very difficult tree to grow from the point of view of a nurseryman like myself – it is not something where an amateur could just grab a handful of seeds and go and grow them,” he said.

“It is not that simple. They are a very difficult seed to germinate.”

So the average person is unlikely to grow and produce their own diesel. Of course the average person doesn’t do this now, so that’s not necessarily a problem.

So, what do you do when the tree has reached the end of its life?

“Not only that, when the tree reaches its use-by date, you’ve got plantation-grown timber which is a very high-grade timber that is suitable for cabinet-making. It is a very ornamental timber.

“You are still keeping it out of the CO2 system by harvesting the timber and milling it and putting it into high-quality furniture.

That all sounds quite interesting. I wonder what the range of the tree is? The biggest disadvantage, though, is that it requires the kind of long-range energy planning that society has been so poor at:

“If I’m lucky enough to live that long enough – I’m 64 now – it is going to take about 15 to 20 years before they are big enough to harvest the oil so that I can use them in a vehicle,” he said.

We can’t even plan 5 years ahead, so it is going to take some real long-term thinkers with a lot of patience to get this idea going.

What are some other options? I think soybean, rapeseed, and palm oil are all out because of land usage issues, and competition with food. What is needed is a high oil producing crop that can be grown on marginal land. Of course that’s what they say about jatropha.

Unfortunately, jatropha seems to have been exaggerated. When I went to India, everyone had heard of it, but nobody knew where any was actually being grown. So there has been a nagging concern in that back of my mind that some other plants mentioned as potential options – Chinese tallow, for instance – may also have had their potential exaggerated. I want to know what’s likely, not some best case scenario.

  1. By Di on November 21, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    You may want to check the QLD GOV DPI report on Copaifera langsdorfii The actual oil harvest in most trials appears to be much less than advertised, less than 1 litre/yr/tree in some trials. The age of the tree has an affect on production also with older trees not producing at all.

  2. By Robert Rapier on November 21, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    “The actual oil harvest in most trials appears to be much less than advertised, less than 1 litre/yr/tree in some trials.”

    If so, that would be consistent with many other would-be wonder crops.


  3. By Di on November 21, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Due diligence!!?

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