Energy in a Castor Bean
By Mario Osava*
The castor-oil plant, ricinus communis, is the best source for creating "biodiesel", say Brazilian experts.
RIO DE JANEIRO - In the search for more environmentally friendly fuels, the use of castor oil has proven to have technical and ecological benefits, and stands as an opportunity for agricultural development in arid and impoverished areas like northeast Brazil.
The oil extracted from the castor bean already has a growing international market, assured by more than 700 uses, ranging from medicines and cosmetics to replacing petroleum in plastics and lubricants.
Castor oil is also used in the manufacture of fiber optics, bulletproof glass and bone prostheses. And it is indispensable for preventing fuels and lubricants utilized in aircraft and space rockets from freezing at extremely low temperatures.
"But its major market is beginning to open in the energy field, with the growth of biodiesel," says Napoleao Beltrao, who has spent the last 18 years studying the properties of castor oil at the state-run Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA) at its labs in the northeastern city of Campina Grande, in Paraíba state.
Castor oil is the best substance for producing biodiesel because it is the only one that is soluble in alcohol, and does not require heat and the consequent energy requirement of other vegetable oils in transforming them into fuel, Beltrao explained to Tierramérica.
Biodiesel, chemically known as an esther, is the result of the reaction between any oily acid with ethyl (ethanol) or methyl (methanol) alcohol. In Europe and the United States, nearly two billion liters of biodiesel are consumed annually, though their oil sources are primarily rapeseed and soy.
European and U.S. farmers have created national and international associations to promote this alternative fuel, which reduces urban air pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases associated with the burning of fossil fuels.
Beltrao is optimistic that castor oil will be competitive with other vegetable oils in energy market.
The castor-oil plant is easy to grow and is resistant to drought, which makes it an ideal crop for the extensive semi-arid region of northeast Brazil. That area, says Beltrao, holds some four million hectares of appropriate land that could yield up to 1.5 tons of castor beans per hectare, compared to the global average of 750 kilos per hectare.
And castor beans could become a farming alternative, providing income for "15 million people who suffer hunger" in Brazil's poorest region, said the expert.
Recent studies and genetic improvements have increased the oil content of the castor bean from 24 to 48 percent. In comparison, soy is just 17 percent oil, noted Beltrao.
The plant has also been bred to mature at a shorter height. Whereas the castor-oil plant traditionally reaches three meters in height, making mechanized harvest difficult, there are now varieties that grow to just 1.7 meters.
The market for castor oil is "unlimited" because its uses continue to multiply, says Roberto Veneziani, director of the Sao Paulo-based Braswey company, which exports the product to Europe and throughout the Americas.
Castor oil is best for making special dyes and for uses in the high technology field, including in nuclear reactors, Veneziani said.
But in order to conquer the biodiesel market two key factors must be resolved: the development of castor bean harvesting equipment and dramatic fluctuations in castor oil prices, he pointed out.
For decades, Brazil was the world leader in producing and exporting castor oil, but has fallen to third place, behind India and China. Brazilian output of 500,000 tons in the late 1980s fell to less than 120,000 tons last year, according to Veneziani.
A clear signal that Brazil plans to move towards biodiesel would jump-start the recovery of the castor-oil crop.
However, that remains to be seen, says Fernando Baratelli, of the state-run petroleum giant Petrobrás. He says that prices remain an obstacle for widespread use of biodiesel.
"Soy oil costs twice as much as diesel fuel. In Germany, biodiesel advanced because the government cut the taxes on it, a move that would be difficult for Brazil to implement," said Baratelli, who heads the Petrobrás gas and energy research center CENPES.
He does acknowledge, however, that castor oil is "promising due to its social and environmental aspects." CENPES is currently conducting a pilot program in castor oil viability as an energy alternative.
* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.