Boeing, Yale University conduct jatropha sustainability study

By Bryan Sims | April 06, 2011

Boeing issued research conducted by Yale University’s School of Environmental Studies that showed significant potential for jatropha-based aviation fuel. The study showed that, if cultivated properly, jatropha could deliver strong environmental and socioeconomic benefits in Latin America while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to 60 percent compared to petroleum jet fuel.

The Yale study, conducted from 2008-‘10 and funded by Boeing, used sustainability criteria developed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels to determine actual farming conditions in Latin America. Specifically, the study focused on the comparison of life cycle GHG emissions from synthetic paraffinic kerosene produced as a jet fuel substitute from jatropha cultivated in Brazil against a reference scenario of conventional jet fuel. Additionally, the Yale team conducted extensive interviews with jatropha farmers and used field measurements to develop comprehensive sustainability analysis of actual projects. The peer-reviewed data is applicable to similar conditions in Mexico and provides guidance to Brazilian efforts to develop a commercial aviation biofuels market.

“The invaluable insights provided by this study will help our airline customers to better understand the sustainability of this potential jet fuel source, while also providing solid scientific data to governments and environmental organizations throughout the region,” said Michael Hurd, commercial airplanes director of environmental strategy for Boeing.

Jatropha projects that were analyzed as part of the study included actual small- and large-scale farms ranging from less than 10 hectares to more than several thousand. Yale researchers used a robust analytical framework to compare land conditions before and after jatropha cultivation.

A key study finding identifies prior land use as the most important factor driving GHG benefits of jatropha-based jet fuel. If jatropha is planted on land previously covered in forest, shrubs or native grasses, the benefits may disappear altogether. If the crop is planted on land that was already cleared or degraded, then additional carbon is stored and emissions reductions could exceed the 60 percent threshold. The research highlighted that developers should pay attention to prior land use when deciding where to locate jatropha projects.

A second finding in the study determined that early jatropha projects suffered from a lack of developed seed strains, which adversely affects yield. Additional sensitivities were also explored, including changes in yield, exclusion of irrigation, shortened supply chains and alternative allocation methodologies, according to Rob Bailis, assistant professor at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and lead researcher on the study.

“Our team identified dozens of jatropha farmers willing to participate in our research, despite some challenges many encountered with this new crop,” Bailis said. “For most, this was the first time anyone had studied their efforts. Working with them allowed us to collect detailed data needed to build a comprehensive picture, including both positive and negative aspects. Research like this is vital to helping developers deliver better social, environmental and economic sustainability outcomes from jatropha cultivation.”

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