FARIDABAD, India - Indians know better than to eat the plum-sized fruit of the wild jatropha bush. It's poisonous enough to kill.
But with oil prices surging, the lowly jatropha is experiencing a renaissance of sorts - as a potential source for fuel for trucks and power stations. The government has identified 98 million acres of land where jatropha can be grown, hoping it will replace 20 percent of diesel consumption in five years.
"We have found that we can produce biodiesel from it. If we can keep the price down, the future looks bright," says R.K. Malhotra, who oversees the Indian Oil Corp.'s research center that is running tests on the oil.
India isn't alone. All across Asia, governments are searching for crops that can help them offset a dependence on imported oil that can only skyrocket as their economies soar. Palm oil and sugar cane are the dominant crops in the region, but everything from coconuts to castor oil to cow dung is being tested for fossil-fuel alternatives such as ethanol and biodiesel.
Most experts also believe that, using current technologies, there isn't enough land to make a serious dent in oil consumption. Some scientists say production will consume more conventional energy than it will save, and environmentalists came out this month against plans by Indonesia to convert millions of acres of rain forest on the island of Borneo into palm oil plantations.
Georgia Tech Professor Arthur Ragauskas, who co-authored a study of biofuels published in Science magazine, sees other potential pitfalls.
"One criticism of biofuels is that if you want to go from 2 percent to 20 percent, you would have to direct so much of that agriculture from food to fuel that there would be real competition between the two," he told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
"Even worse, if we have a famine in part of the world, we would have to make a decision as a society between food or fuel."
For now, alternative fuels are less than 1 percent of current fuel usage in most of Asia, and experts say their large-scale use is years if not decades away.
Still, "Every country in Asia is trying to commercialize and put up legislation on biofuels," said Conrado Heruela, a renewable energy specialist with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency.
"Right now, the target is not that big but it will be very significant in the long term," he said.
Ethanol, distilled mostly from corn in the United States and from sugar in Brazil and Asia, is mixed with petrol. Biodiesel comes mostly from rape seed in Europe, vegetable oil in the United States and palm oil, coconut oil and jatropha in Asia, and is mixed with diesel.
Ethanol produces 13 percent less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, a study published recently in Science magazine found, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture says biodiesel can reduce carbon emissions by 78 percent.
Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej has a car that runs on palm oil and has been touting the substitute fuel to his nation for more than 20 years. Today, hundreds of gas stations in the capital, Bangkok, sell gasohol - gasoline with 10 percent ethanol - and it's slightly cheaper than regular gas.
Thailand also grants the sugar industry tax breaks to produce ethanol and is following the United States in a plan to replace the toxic fuel additive MTBE with ethanol. Still, supply is not matching demand.
On some Pacific islands, whose isolation makes oil imports more costly and vulnerable to market shifts, power companies are looking for other sources.
"The use of alternative fuels is very much the topic of the moment among the small utilities in the Pacific," said Jean Chaniel, the general manager of Unelco Vanuatu, whose company runs some generators on 5 percent coconut oil.
The Fiji Electricity Authority plans to switch entirely to renewable energy by 2011.
India says it wants to increase its use of renewable energy from the current 5 percent to 25 percent by 2030. Much of this will come from nuclear plants, but it is also examining wind power and other methods including jatropha.
About half of India drives on gasoline with 5 percent ethanol, and the government aims to increase that to 20 percent in the next decade.
In China, the government is promoting ethanol and is financing nuclear, hydroelectric and solar power, aiming to increase renewable energy sources from 7 percent currently to 15 percent by 2020.
High oil prices and rising car ownership mean "there is great market potential to develop renewable vehicle fuel," China's National Development and Reform Commission said in a statement. "Introducing ethanol fuel is good to improve the environment, stabilize grain production, and promote sustainable economic development."
Other countries are using the interest in biofuels to boost their farming sector.
Malaysia, the world's largest producer of palm oil, has issued 10 licenses for plants to produce biodiesel for export, mostly to the European Union, which has mandated that all fuels should contain 5.75 percent biofuels by 2010.
Decatur, Ill.-based Archer Daniels Midland last year announced plans to build a $29 million biodiesel facility in Singapore.
BP is spending $9.4 million to study jatropha in India and in March announced it will produce 29 million gallons of ethanol a year by 2007 in Australia, which aims to substitute 2 percent of oil use by 2010 with ethanol.
British-based D1 Oils is investing up to $20 million mostly in jatropha in India, Indonesia and the Philippines.
The Indian government says it has successfully run dozens of trucks and buses on jatropha-based biodiesel and 18.5 million acres of jatropha saplings are growing along the country's railroad tracks. It intends to start mixing 5 percent or 2.6 million tons of jatropha into diesel by 2007, which would require planting 6 million acres of jatropha.
Seeds from the jatropha fruit are crushed to produce a yellowish oil that is refined and then mixed with diesel. Yields remain open to debate, with the Indian government saying they could be up to 4 tons of biodiesel per acre of jatropha - or just a fifth of that - depending on how successfully farmers cultivate it.
It appears to have advantages in Asia over competitors like palm oil, since it can be grown almost anywhere, meaning it won't compete with food crops and so far has not appeared to threaten rain forest and other environmentally sensitive areas.
Chris Chatterton, chief executive officer of D1 Oils Southeast Asia, sees jatropha as "a major competitor with palm oil." And a nonedible source is an advantage over rape seed or sunflower oil, he says, because "You are not taking land that would otherwise be used for food... It is a bit bourgeois to take edible biodiesel so Europeans can drive around in their Mercedes."
Local vegetation used to create biodiesel
India, Indonesia and the Philippines are at the forefront of using seeds from this wild bush to produce biodiesel, a fuel derived from natural oils that can be blended with conventional diesel. Though mostly in the development stage, supporters claim jatropha is on par with soy bean and rape seed oil, which are used in the United States and Europe. Supporters say it grows almost anywhere and burns cleaner than traditional diesel. But hurdles remain, including lack of processing facilities and almost no existing commercial farming.
Australia, Thailand and India use sugar cane or molasses to produce ethanol, which can be mixed with gasoline to run cars. Most of these countries use a mix of 5 percent ethanol and 95 percent gasoline, with plans to increase that amount to as much as 20 percent in the coming years. Producing ethanol this way is land-intensive, and ensuring there is enough to meet demand is a problem.
Malaysia and Indonesia are expected to be leading producers of palm oil for use in biodiesel, especially for Europe. Thailand is expected to add palm oil to its domestic biodiesel mix. Concerns remain, however, over how the fuel would perform in cold weather and the environmental impact of more plantations.
The Philippines and some Pacific island nations are turning to coconut oil, mostly for power generation and diesel fuel. It is cheaper than traditional fuels and the transport costs are low. But most lack the capacity for large-scale production.