Thursday, May 26, 2011

Jatropha for Dummies - Part 1 - The Crunch

I meet all these people lately asking me, hey, "what are you doing down there in Africa..." and I say: "Jatropha farming my friend" trying to be as brief as possible. 95% of the time I either get a blank look or a "Huu Jat... eh... what did you say? Never heard of it."

This is hard to believe for somebody who has spent every day of his live since 2008 with the ups and downs of this business but its the plain truth, most people don't have the slightest idea what I am talking about... So usually quite hesitantly I start going on: "You know, its this new crop people talk about a lot recently for producing non-edible oil to be used in airplanes replacing some of today's fossil jet fuels and get the airlines' carbon balance right". Ahh, they say, "like palm oil isn't it? But isn't that bad for the environment?"

Listening to this again and again and reading all those vastly unfounded reports from NGO's bashing a very promising future energy and animal feed crop that has not even fully emerged the "breeder's drawing board" yet has finally convinced me to start writing this small series of articles. It should help those interested and with an open mind to understand better what the whole thing is about.

I myself am the MD of Bionic Palm in Ghana and a Jatropha farmer, but even more an active breeder of future high yielding Jatropha and a developer of all kinds of "agronomic" techniques aiming to make this plant a profitable and highly sustainable source of energy and protein. We work with partners from around the world who share our motivation.

There is an obvious high disappointment by many with Jatropha by many investors and downstream oil users, however, this is a notion commonly not shared by long standing experienced researchers of the plant. Now, why is that so?

Jatropha (to be correct "Jatropha curcas Linn" or for us from here on simply JcL) is a native of Central America and a member of a large genus of approx. 172 different species. It offers a lot of interesting features as a biological system that have never been fully explored.  JcL was brought to Africa and Asia many hundred years ago by the Portuguese. Until recently its use was mainly limited to serving as hedges separating cattle from fields and controlling mosquitoes with a small side use for soap and candle making. Therefore, there was never any serious domestication of the plant and for many decades it was basically left to itself until it was rediscovered in Africa and India as a possible feedstock source for biodiesel. The big hype that followed with investors was never founded on well thought through agronomic and business plans and definitely not based on a sound scientific understanding of JcL specifically or its taxonomic genus in general. Only a small number of reports had been published on the plant and only a handful of scientists had ever studied it. (A situation that significantly changed over the last 5 years.)

Still the investors of the early years concentrated on the acquisition of hundreds of thousands of hectars and started planting rapidly without ever truly analyzing the material they were working with. The back lash came quickly: The near wild plants they chose to plant with enormous financial efforts did not perform anywhere near as expected in their presentations. They all left out a very simple rule of agricultural projects: testing, testing, testing... When they started realizing their mistakes it was already too late. The investors' money was gone and projects failing everywhere as they were never planned right in the first place. And then the global financial crisis hit, so no fresh money was available anywhere. Today we find large numbers of suspended or even completely abandoned projects from those days especially all over Africa.

It didn't take long and legions of would be experts started blaming and criticizing JcL as the wrong approach for an endless number of reasons. However, since the people writing all the negative reports are not remotely the same kind of experts on JcL as they are on negative report writing, very few sound, business oriented assessments surfaced over the last few years. We have recently reported about one here.

But mostly unrecognized in public, in the background there was some profound practical and scientific work starting. While industry, finance and politics started abandoning JcL everywhere many researchers and agronomists picked up the subject and started for the first time some serious work on tha5t crop.

This author made some simple statements in a presentation given at a conference in 2008 in Accra:
(Here you can find a later, refined version of this very presentation)

"The Jatropha value chain is financially not working out for the early producers".

But, the statement continued: "the outlook is positive once the following conditions are met:
1 - high yielding domesticated cultivars become available
2 - improved agronomic methods increase yields
3 - JcL specific mechanization technology becomes available"

Today I would add a statement about non-toxic cultivars or (less preferable) successful detoxification of the press cake in order to be able to use it as animal feed.

It was all clear in 2008 (while most still presented their old business models and some even do it until today), what is stated in more an more scientific reports: we need better planting material to begin with! However, improving planting material by large margins has been done again and again, so why not with JcL? Its quite impressive to study the history of the development of some common crops like maize with yield improvements of several hundred percent over the last 50-100 years.

In spite of the permanent flow of critical reporting, new strategies have been put in place around the world to change the JcL picture regarding all of the above mentioned points.

For example a company called SG Biofuels from San Diego, California has launched its Jatropha 2.0 platform with a lot of marketing hype (prematurely as I think) while we at Bionic Palm started our Bionic JcL3.0 initiative focused on Africa but actually reaching out much further than SGB. What all these activities have in common is a more profound approach to overcome the barriers that stopped the early JcL growers.

So what is out there to be expected?

My prediction is for a thriving JcL industry starting to pick up around 2015 with some early adopters of a generation 3 approach. Improved cultivars start coming up and will do so in growing numbers over the next couple of years. We plan to have a first high yielding non-toxic cultivar available for extensive testing by the end of 2013 after finalizing a proof of concept by mid 2012.

The markets, especially for green jet fuel (SPK) sector, will push hard for more supply, as their demand will be rising seriously from 2012 when Europe introduces its new emission policy for all commercial airlines flying in and out of Europe. Therefore the interested industry is already returning to JcL working on all kinds of feasibility reports and finance will start following them as long term off-take agreements become common.

Unfortunately we are currently going through a phase which I call the Jatropha generation 2, where strange people are pushing around clouds, sign long term deals for non existent Jatropha oil and "buy and sell" on the web a commodity that mostly doesn't exist. This is the aftermath of the generation 1 gold rush and will vanish as soon as serious generation 3 projects emerge, based on strategies incorporating sound planting materials and agronomy concepts.

This article will be followed by 4 more attempting to give more insight about what is to be expected from JcL:

Jatropha for Dummies - Part 2 - The future is non-toxic
Jatropha for Dummies - Part 3 - The Farming
Jatropha for Dummies - Part 4 - Equipment and Processing
Jatropha for Dummies - Part 5 - JcL Break Through - But When?

Please visit also our Jatropha Breeder 3.0 Blog where we talk about our breeding platform in more detail.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bionic Fuel MWDP commercialization on track

A most important step in the way forward for Bionic's MWDP technology has just been achieved: Bionic Fuel received a letter of intent for the first commercial reactor. It will be fully assembled at the Smeral Factory in Brno, Czech Republic and rigorously tested against its specifications. We will publish a full record of the manufacturing and testing process on this website. After all formal certifications are completed the reactor will be disassembled and shipped to its final location at the project site in Hawaii.

The client, Aina Koa Pono LLC (AKP) plans to order a second batch of 12 reactors which will be combined in a cluster configuration and feed their oil to a biorefinery. Outputs will be ASTM diesel, high quality biochar and fuel additives. In January AKP has signed a 20-year off-take agreement with HECO, the Hawaiian power company.

See also the news on the BFT website.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Excellent new report on the future of Jatropha published

An excellent investor oriented 43 page report on Jatropha (JcL) has been published by Hardman & Co titled "Plant with a bad Name". It is definitely the best publication of this kind we have ever seen anywhere, a must read for any serious player in the industry. The full document can be downloaded here.
The report points out the simple fact, that spectacular failures in the past with a number of JcL projects are no indication for the performance of this crop in the future. The past was based on semi wild planting material and little agronomic knowledge on how to manage it correctly. There was simply not enough scientific and practical background for commercial JcL farming. The report shows in detail, how this situation is changing rapidly. "Professional planters, working with Jatropha crop scientists are now developing commercially sized and scalable plantations in suitable growing locations. These ventures have the potential to prove the commercial case for Jatropha as a biofuels feedstock." This statement from the report sums up all the contained details very well, which have been brought together in one place for the first time.

Bionic Palm itself is at the forefront of this development with its world class JcL breeding program and its integrated food & fuel farming concept. Both approaches are unique in several ways and the goals exceed highly marketed activities by others. That's why we started calling our platform JcL3.0.

We focus on the development of non toxic, high yielding hybrid cultivars in our genetic marker assisted breeding program where we partner with Geneticlab, a world leader in commercial research on molecular genetics of JcL. The report describes the great opportunities of a detoxification process for the  press cake, a process said to be commercially available by 2012/2013. We are very confident, that our focused hybrid breeding process will turn out the first commercially usable non-toxic planting material  within about the same time frame. Non-toxic or at least controlled low-toxic material is actually a must for the future protection of workers' health, as it is well known, that current JcL can become a serious long term health hazard to farm workers exposed to it for years. We will soon publish a document, that is going to look at the many advantages of non-toxic hybrid planting material vs. the current toxic one even with detoxification available.

Our integrated food & fuel farming is another piece of leading edge JcL development which we have been testing intensively over the last 3 years on our 150ha test plantation. This presentation explains most of the aspects involved in detail. The concept is highly sustainable, can reclaim depleted and eroded soils and generate food outputs currently unseen in Sub Saharan Africa, while still generating significant volumes of Jatropha products.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bionic Palm's Jatropha hybrid breeding program

1 year ago BPL started breeding for high yielding non-toxic Jatropha hybrids as part of the ambitious BIONIC JCL 3.0 program. Early interspecific hybrid results are very promising. An ongoing proof of concept phase should be completed before the end of 2011.
Jatropha curcas Lin (JcL) is a relatively new discovery for the world of non edible plant oils for energy and chemical use as a sustainable substitute for fossil crude oil. However, it is considered a very promising plant by experts given its ability to survive even under the hardest environmental conditions.

JcL hedges form the back bone of Bionic Palm's innovative food and fuel farming concept covering 30% of the farmed land and facilitate the recovery of previously depleted African farmland. 

The planting material currently in use by most plantation projects around the world is commercially insufficient and  mostly defined as wild accessions by scientists. An optimization through professional breeding programs  is desperately needed if this crop is to make it. Only domesticated hybrid varieties will eventually be able to meet investors and farmers expectations in terms of yield, oil quality and other important traits.

In addition, it would be of high commercial value, if "non-toxic" elite varieties could be developed. The byproduct from pressing oil, the oil cake, could be used as a high quality feed material for poultry and fish.
There is evidence from many scientific reports that the development of high yielding and non-toxic hybrids can be achieved through traditional breeding methods. However, the genetic variability of JcL has been reported to be very limited  recently. Therefore, an intraspecific breeding approach as marketed by some protagonists in the industry like SG Biofuels and Quinvita (former D1 plant sciences, just to name two), who are usually boasting with their large collections of Jatropha curcas material from around the world, does not promise stunning break throughs.

Bionic Palm's management team has been listening carefully to the scientific community and is following a radically different approach in its fast track program to make the first non-toxic true elite Jatropha cultivars available. Based on yet unpublished scientific work from the recent past, we have selected the most genetically suited 10 JcL accessions from around the world (including 4 non-toxic ones) together with a number of related varieties from the genus Jatropha as parent plants and mapped out a detailed interspecific hybrid breeding path.

The breeding process will be backed by genetic marker technology thus reducing time requirements by a factor of at least 3. We expect the first patentable results in 24 to 36 months. Bionic Palm has already spent over 18 months, to get the selected parental material in place at its Ghana research facility. The program has taken off in December 2010 with performing the first crossings of the program map.

The program has been designed with three guidelines in mind: Quick results, highly manageable and low risk. Successful results will not only change the economics of JcL profoundly, but also improve the working conditions for farm workers, who often suffer from allergic reactions after some years of intensive exposure to the plant and its seeds.

A special blog called "The Jatropha Breeder" shares more specific information and highlights about this activity.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bionic Palm Ltd, our sustainable biomass feedstock company

Today we start talking about another area of activities within the Bionic Fuel Group, the African agricultural venture Bionic Palm Ltd. Ghana (BPL). The company was founded in 2007 and came a long way since then. An early attempt to take over an existing palm oil mill was terminated after a few months. Subsequently BPL started its "food and energy" project model in Ghana's coastal savannah about 50km outside of the capital Accra. This presentation gives an overview on what we are doing. We started a test farm which has currently reached a size of approx. 150ha.

Building on the test farm experience an innovative integrated farming model was designed which will be rolled out as soon as the necessary funding is in place. We expect to create at least 500 permanent jobs. We consider 5000ha as the upper limit for this project. Food:Energy ratio will be 7:3 in terms of land use.  However, food crops could not be grown with the same sustainable yields without Jatropha hedges, therefore we actually exceed the potential of food crops per ha without the hedges while only using 70% of the land.

The farm will produce quality food for the local markets especially in the urban center of Accra/Tema and generate its own energy from the farm waste.

The test farm employs 35 people permanently by now and grows local crops like chili pepper, maize, aubergines, onions, tomatoes and more. All of the planting takes place in between Jatropha double hedges in a cropping system called double alley planting. A poultry farm has also been started with chicken, guinea fowls and turkeys.

Between JcL hedges (640x480).jpg

There are many advantages to the Bionic farming system, which avoids the issues of mono cropping and improves water, soil and nutrient management.
Across the JcL hedges (640x480).jpg

A soil improvement program directed at depleted topical soils has been initiated involving biochar in combination with a system of mineral and biological amendments like mycorrhiza. Mid term only natural fertilizers will be used, like the Jatropha press cake, manure from our poltry farm, compost and more.

The model roll out will integrate a microfuel plant with agricultural "waste" as feedstock. It will come primarily from the annual pruning of the Jatropha hedges plus any additional waste deriving from growing food crops. The fuel will be used for the farm equipment, the biochar mixed with above mentioned biofertilizers and additives will return to the fields. Given the 100% use of biofuel and the additional carbon sequestration through adding the biochar to the soil should result in an actual carbon negative footprint of the farm.

In order to fill some availability gaps and to further improve the model BPL has decided to embark on its own R&D activities. A breeding program for Jatropha curcas Linn and localized food crops and a soil amendment biochar++ program are included to develop sustained optimal soil conditions in the tropical environment. Both programs have started and involve cooperations with strong research partners in the related fields.

Our R&D objectives:
Breeding programs:

  • Locally adapted elite, non-toxic Jatropha varieties
  • Localized improved varieties for tomatoes, chili pepper and aubergines


  • Soil amendment concepts based on biochar that will overcome the agricultural issues of tropical savannah soil

I will certainly write more about both programs in the near future. in the mean time you can have a look at our extensive geotagged picture gallery documenting the development of the test farm from the very beginning.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Is Bionic's MWDP a pyrolysis process?

In order to explore in depth the potential of the microfuel technology we need to compare it with other liquefying technologies on the market.

Today I want to start with MWDP's closest relative: pyrolysis.

Task 34 of the IEA Bioenergy initiative focuses on Pyrolysis from Biomass. They run a very informative website that has been around for some time and was integrated into Task 34 some time ago. I suggest visiting that site to anyone who wants to know more.

What is pyrolysis?

The most simple definition can be found on the mentioned website: "Pyrolysis is thermal decomposition occurring in the absence of oxygen". Following that definition MWDP is definitely a form of pyrolysis as the decomposition is at least in part thermal, while assisted by microwaves and the zeolite as explained in the MWDP article. On the other hand, it doesn't easily fit into any of the common categories of pyrolysis.

What types of pyrolysis can be identified?

Usually 3 types of pyrolysis are recognized: Fast, intermediate and slow. Most data of the following table is again taken from the definitions on the Task34 website (MWDP data has been added by us):







≈500°C, short hot vapor residence time >1sec





≈500°C, hot vapor residence time 10-30 sec





≈290°C, solids residence time 30 min





≈400°C, long vapor residence time, hrs > days










≈280°C, solids residence time 30-45 min




We can see clearly that MWDP fits in none of the 3 categories. Lower temperatures also suggest a higher energy efficiency of the process. Next lets have a look at typical quality parameters.

Pyrolysis oil is usually called bio-oil, which is a bit misleading at a water content between 20-30% which cannot be separated easily. It can only be burned in direct combustion or upgraded in complex, large scale refinery-style processing. The pyrolysis liquid has a very low heating value of typically 16-19 MJ/kg. For more quality information see again our reference website.

Now we compare this with what we call bio-oil in the MWDP process: Water content is usually below 3%, direct combustion is a possibility, but it can better be used directly in any HFO specified engine, which are usually stationary diesel engines in power plants or on ships. The biggest quality difference can be noticed in the heating value, which reaches up to 45 MJ/kg, similar to standard diesel fuel. Upgrading of MWDP derived bio-oil to achieve ultra low sulfur diesel or SPK (=biojetfuel) is a relatively simple process mostly involving 2 phases: a secondary distillation and a hydrotreatment, both typical phases in any modern refinery.

But not only the MWDP bio-oil shows such big quality differences, the same thing is true for the char fraction. Heating values of up to 30 MJ/kg are unprecedented in any other pyrolysis technology as much as other quality parameters. MWDP char meets the highest quality parameters of industrial applications, where all other biochar was rejected as insufficient.

So where might the future of pyrolysis lie?

Some authors have started already to add a forth category of catalyst assisted processes. While not yet commonly accepted, that is actually the right category for TCDP and MWDP and probably the only category that will be able to bring about true innovation for pyrolysis.

The development of MWDP

Today we finally reached the first article about Bionic's very unique, proprietary technology. Don't try to copy it, its patented :-). We baptized it microfuel about five years ago. In order to differentiate it from other depolymerization technologies we call it microwave depolymerization or MWDP. The name describes however only half of the truth. Actually the better term would be microwave catalytic depolymerization. You simply cannot always put everything in a name. But lets start from the beginning.

Bionic's founders and core team came together for one reason: frustration about other technologies. All we wanted to do in the beginning was to implement an existing thermal catalytic depolymerization process, but the one we had chosen didn't really work well on a commercial scale. So we started looking for alternatives, but we really couldn't find anything satisfactory. That was the beginning of Bionic...

Others had already identified a major hurdle for all TCDP implementations: for optimal processing results the reaction mass had to be heated from the inside out. Biomass is a very poor heat conductor, so it will stay cool at the inside, while already turning into carbon on the outside, sticking to the wall of the reaction vessel. A fact well known to every cook. That's why he keeps stirring in his pots all the time... However, we didn't like solutions used by others who invented stirrers and scrubbers or use complex screw or auger reactor designs. We were looking for a more elegant, mechanically robust solution. So we started experimenting with a simple kitchen microwave and saw the principle results we were looking for. Quickly better suited microwave equipment was built and endless test runs started. Like many successful business we also started in the garage.

The basic process was clear from the beginning: Take some hydrocarbon containing feedstock, mix it well with the zeolite catalyst and expose it to microwave irradiation. At some point vapor starts coming out. Collect all the vapors, condense them and separate the water from the oil. Everything has to take place in an oxygen free environment. Low pressure is helpful.

From the humble beginnings hundreds of small steps had been taken to optimize everything for the best yield and product quality. One of the main issues was proper feedstock preparation and a perfectly homogeneous mix with the zeolite. Excellent results were achieved by shredding the feedstock and pelletizing it together with the catalyst. That way we were able to increase the material density and eliminate any problems of the uniformity of the zeolite distribution throughout the process. The result is a higher specific weight and energy content in the feedstock an a much more efficient use of the zeolite.

We realized, that it is of high importance to heat the material in the right way over a certain period of time. Going too fast is as ineffective as going too slow. Specific heating patterns were developed to reach perfect conditions for different materials. The optimal maximum reaction temperature turned out to be below 300°C, a fact that makes the conversion very energy efficient. A continuous reactor design had to reflect these necessities.

Many different additives have been tested to further improve reaction conditions, some for chemical reasons, others in order to improve reactivity in the microwave fields.

By now our tests revealed a clear picture: We had succeeded in combining 2 independently functioning chemo-physical mechanisms into one, a form of microwave pyrolysis and the well known catalytic depolymerization we started from. Both mechanisms are reported many times in scientific literature, with widely known parameters and conditions. However, we brought them together for the first time and clearly achieved positive results by doing so. None of the individual processes can match those. Here is the chemo physical background in a few simplifying terms: Both technologies are in itself capable of breaking up molecular bonds (cracking). The trick is how to control the process, which means the cracking has to stop at the intended size and quality of molecules. Here the zeolite's function as a molecular sieve comes into play, while the temperature profile of the reaction determines most of the oil quality.

An important addition to all of this is the fact, that the pellets keep their basic structure throughout the process. They are kind of "sweating out" the oil and the remainder is a perfect biochar with unmatched qualities for either combustion or as a soil amendment (at least in the case of a biomass feedstock). We will talk about the char in detail in a dedicated post soon.

The next challenge on the development path was the design of a continuous reactor that would replicate all the positive properties we had identified in the lab. What the result looks like can be seen in detail in this presentation and a lot more information can be found on the Bionic website. By mid 2010 we had finalized the design of a commercial reactor based on the findings from a working pilot.

From here on there will be a lot of posts describing in depth various details and implications of MWDP including various analysis results. Unfortunately we are not able to publish everything as some of the material has to be kept confidential due to client requests.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

TCDP Thermo Catalytic Depolymerization

Its been a long time since the last 2 posts, but after making a few changes to the basic idea of this site (which took us two and a half years) we are now back on course with explaining the basics about our microfuel technology and share with the interested public where we are going from here.

So this time I will give more background about thermo-catalytic depolymerization to prepare everyone for the next post, which will be about MWDP, microwave depolymerization, the technology invented in our group.

For those who went through my last posts it shouldn't be too difficult to follow this final chapter about the basics behind TCDP. For those who haven't I recommend to have a look back at the last post first.

I think the best way to explain TCDP is to go through the term word by word while analyzing their intended meaning. And finally I want to go a little bit into the possibilities and implications of a stable and reliable continuous process technology supporting TCDP to make it work on a large scale.


Depolymerization is the contrary to polymerization, which means the building of large organic or carbon based molecules, called polymers, out of smaller building blocks. Therefore depolymerization means the break down or cracking of polymers into smaller molecules. In our context, the polymers are for example large organic molecules like cellulose, man made plastics or vulcanized rubber. When they are cracked in the proper way, the result will be a liquid mixture of molecules that has similar properties like the most useful oil products from fossil oil. Two things are required to do that: energy and a catalyst...


Thermal means "through the application of heat", meaning the required energy is added to a process in the form of heat. This is actually complemented by pressure in some existing implementations, acting as an additional form of energy input for a transformation process. The total amount of energy input required for a certain chemo physical transformation then determines the energy efficiency of such a process. Energy efficiency is obviously a very important factor when it comes to assessing cost and environmental impact of a biomass to energy conversion.


Probably the very first successfully run TCDP process is documented in a patent application by the German chemical conglomerate IG Farben in the 1920ties. Metals like iron and copper where used as catalysts. At that time zeolites with their superior capabilities had not yet been discovered. Today they are the material of choice for this process.

A zeolite combines two important capabilities in one material: a molecular sieve in the form of a siliceous crystal structure and a metallic catalyst function (Aluminum oxide). The combination of both is essential for many of their uses. Oil refineries are using them for over 50 years to improve their product yields, but they are also used in many different production processes and form an important ingredient in modern washing agents.

For those who want to know more about zeolites, please go to Professor Geoffrey L. Price Zeolite Page and have a look at his description.

Now somebody might think: all you have to do is build a small reactor that allows you to mix your garden waste with zeolite, heat up the mixture to the right temperature and voila, the next day you have diesel for your car and biochar for next years vegetable.
Well, in principle this is correct, however, many have tried over the years to design a simple continuous reactor which can exactly do this. They have learned the hard way that there are some technical issues to overcome before you get there. We will get back to this in a future article about the technical hurdles in building such a reactor. 

Until then please visit us on Bionic World to have a look at our reactors.