FORT MYERS — What some see as the biofuel of the future starts out as short, thick stems with a few leaves sticking out at sharp angles. But in just a few years, they will be tall, leafy trees with bright green spherical pods spilling their seeds all over the ground.
The jatropha tree doesn't have the name recognition or lobbying clout of corn-based ethanol, but the energy industry is increasingly spending development dollars and examining it as a potentially better biofuel source: It is easier to grow than corn, untied to the food market and free from any carbon dioxide or sulfur emissions.
Biodiesel from jatropha has powered test flights on Air New Zealand and Continental Airlines. It has prompted oil giant BP PLC to partner on jatropha projects in India and Africa.
And here on Florida's Gulf Coast, one jatropha company believes in the trees with such fervor it calls them the eventual solution to the country's oil problems. But skeptics consider that hyperbole, saying there are still too many questions.
"Jatropha is a perfect crop," said Dave Wolfley, a distribution manager for Fort Myers' My Dream Fuel. "We have the resources to do away with importing foreign oil."
The numbers, Wolfley says, are telling: The trees cost $6 to $7 each, can be grown 400 to an acre, and produce more than 2 gallons of oil apiece each season. Still, it would take a farm the size of Rhode Island to produce a billion gallons — and the U.S. economy uses more than 50 billion gallons of diesel fuel annually.
Jennifer Holmgren, general manager of renewable energy and chemicals for energy technology firm UOP, which provided the fuel for the airlines' test flights, said jatropha may be the latest biofuel buzzword, but the energy industry must remain objective.
It's important to find a fuel source that works with the current infrastructure, Holmgren said. For anything, including jatropha, to be widely used, it needs to work in the current pipeline system, which ethanol does not. And jatropha is usable in diesel engines only.