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Biofuel potential of the humble weed

Biofuels have come under criticism lately for competing with the world food production.

The Jathropha curcas is a weed that does not compete with food production yet yields fuel and heals wounds. UNIMAS is currently working on developing its potential as the alternative plant for biofuels production.

The European Union, in one of its directive, have proposed an action plan aiming at increasing the share of biofuels to more than 20% of European petrol and diesel consumption by 2020.

While the US are producing corn for biofuels, the use of edible plant such as sugars and corns, has been criticised by many as part of the contributing factors to the shortage of their supply in the world's food market. Also, as this requires fertile agricultural land, it further reduces the land allocated for food crops cultivation.

Physic nut (Jathropha curcas) is a type of weed and is inedible. Furthermore, it grows freely on areas deemed unsuitable for farming, including non-arable, marginal and waste land; and therefore, does not compete with vital crops for good agricultural land.

This weed was introduced to Malaysia in the 1940s when the Japanese used it as fuel for their combat vehicles, and the leaves used to heal the wounds of their wounded soldiers.

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, through the Faculty of Resource Science and Technology, is currently working on a project with a local commercial company to explore the commercial viability of physic nuts as the alternative plants for large scale production of biofuels in the State of Sarawak, Malaysia.

The research areas include identification of high yield plant clones through selection and cross-breeding, effect of soil conditions (in various divisions within Sarawak) on its growth and production rates, development of tissue culture and micropropagation technique for mass propagation of the selected clones, and the pharmaceutical potential of this plants.

Once mature, the physic nut tree can continue to produce seeds for the next 35-40 years. Previous studies has shown that the oil can be combusted without being refined (thus cutting on the production process), and burn with clear, smoke free flame; and it has been tested as fuel for simple diesel engine.

Apart from its biofuel potential, it also produces natural chemical compounds believed to have anti-cancers properties. It is traditionally used as an external application for skin diseases and rheumatism, and for sores on domestic livestock. The oil is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and can be used as organic manure.

Resni Mona | ResearchSEA
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