Croton plant offers some hope for biofuel enthusiasts

The Croton tree, an ingenious plant in Sub-Saharan Africa, is the latest entry in the search for sources of low cost biofuels that could help avoid the many environmental problems associated with production of these biofuels from palm oils and serve as a good escape from the largely unsuccessful efforts to extract biofuel from the seeds of jatropha plant.

Croton is a better biofuel source when compared to other biofuel sources, croton plant is native to East Africa means monetizing the fruits may encourage the locals to plant it more thus help fight deforestation. Being native means it is naturally suited to the local climates where it is grown as a biofuel source. Unlike other biofuel sources that have been abandoned, this crop does not require any investment in terms of water or fertilizer and harvest time. The fact that it does not require investment in terms of water and fertilizer or time means it does not compete with food crops. 

The plant grows in challenging environment or poor soils and thus can help deal with land wastage, boost employment of locals, and help improve land usage in those areas.

Biofuel from croton plants can be used to replace diesel fuel in slow-spinning engines. It has no chemical additives, it burns cleaner than traditional diesel fuels, has engine lubricating effects, and has no sulfuric content. Tests in the lab revealed that the biofuel has a higher flash point and causes lower exhaust emissions. Its oil can go directly to diesel generators, water pumps or tractor engines although it needs processing before being used in cars. 

The plant could help in combating climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as help people avoid dependence on fossil fuels in countries such as Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique where the plant is mostly available.

Mukinduri, as the plant is known in some of the local dialects in Central and Eastern Kenya, is mainly used as a source of firewood in the community. The plant takes only five to seven years to reach maturity, is drought resistant, provides a good canopy and yields fruits twice a year. Its seeds are also high in protein and oil concentration as revealed by the lab tests. For biofuel enthusiasts it promises a consistent supply of croton nuts at minimal cost to optimize profits.

Eco Fuels Kenya is one of the companies that has been producing biofuel from this tree since 2012 and the company has learnt a lot about this process. The biofuel is extracted from croton seeds but also the company gets by-products that are then reused for the production of organic fertilizers and animal feeds - the company also sells seedcake from the pressed nut as poultry feed, and organic fertilizer from the shells.

Farmers who cultivate the plant and sell seeds to the company can source between $2 and $3 in an hour collecting seeds from their crops according to the company. The company has 1,800 collectors who source the seeds from 50 collection centers. This year alone, Eco Fuels Kenya has already produced 1,000 tons of nuts up from 500 tons in 2015.

The company uses similar machines to those used in the processing of walnuts or macadamia: these machines turn out to be low-tech and low-energy consuming compared to those used in the traditional fuel manufacturing processes. It sells its products mainly to local businesses that run generators at locations such as tourist camps.

Biofuel production has many troubles of its own

Production of biofuels from plants has been meet with many criticisms. One of those criticisms is that it encourages people to convert their fertile lands from food production to fuel production for quick and more economic benefits, which can result to food shortage and drought. This is what has affected production of biofuels from palm oil and jatropha plant. 

For instance, after many people threw loads of money into the Jatropha biofuel production project a few years ago in Central of Africa because the tree was thought to solve the fuel vs food competition problem as it would not compete for the rich fertile lands needed for food production, the project came crashing in 2008: Investors pulled out even after funding Jatropha plantations and tens of thousands of acres in places like Mozambique where even the president had encouraged people to "go Jatropha". It turned out that the hope and hype on the plant was based on a failure to understand the crop well: although the plant can survive droughts and poor soils, it won't produce many seeds. It was found that the plant needs nutrients and water, just like any other crop, meaning it would compete for the same fertile land as food crops, reverting back to the food vs. fuel problem. This and many other cases call for need to get things right from the word go. You can see some research on process optimization here.

In short and in conclusion, Croton plants offer some hope for producing low cost biofuels with lesser emissions and thus can help to lower emissions and in reducing climate change, all without the many or with minimal problems associated with other biofuel sources such as the palm oil tree and Jatropha.

The plants further fit into that agenda because it is suited to local climates being native to Sub-Sahara area, grows in poor soils, and can be managed at a low cost (and does not need much water). It can help improve land utilization in poor soil areas. Also, the biofuels can be produced at low cost with ordinary machines that have no complicated processes and maintenance.