* Attractive due to higher oil yield than palm, jatropha
* Doubts linger as not proven yet on commercial scale
* Some say may be best suited to small farmers
By Nina Chestney
LONDON, Oct 27 Several new companies are betting
on the little-known pongamia pinnata tree as a biodiesel
feedstock that does not hurt food production, but a decade or
more of research and development is still needed to determine
its value as a commercial crop.
Pongamia pinnata, also known as millettia pinnata, is native
to Australia, India and parts of southeast Asia. Its oil has so
far been used in medicines, lubricants and oil lamps.
Pongamia is attractive because, after six years of
cultivation, its oil yield is estimated to rise to around 23
tonnes per hectare per year -- almost double yields of 12 tonnes
from jatropha, another tree that is a biodiesel feed crop, and
11 tonnes from palm oil.
It has attracted attention as pressure mounts to find
sustainable alternative fuels to help meet countries' renewable
energy targets and cut greenhouse gas emissions, without
interfering with agricultural production.
But prior experience with jatropha shows that what looks
like a promising crop may prove disappointing.
"Unless something has been commercially proven, I would not
like to say that this is going to be a success," said Hema
Thakur, industry manager for chemicals, materials and foods at
research consultancy Frost & Sullivan.
"I would say pongamia stands a better chance than jatropha,
but certain thresholds in terms of yield, production, plantation
and commercial conversion to biodiesel would have to be met,"
The medium-sized evergreen pongamia can grow on marginal
arid or semi-arid land and is a nitrogen-fixing tree, which
means that it helps fertilise the soil.
"The tree and oil composition look basically promising.
However, it may take a long time to a large-scale, truly
sustainable biofuel production," said Birger Kerckow,
secretariat at the European Biofuels Technology Platform.
A few years ago, jatropha was hailed by investors and
scientists as a biofuel alternative to fossil fuels that would
not further impoverish developing countries by diverting
resources away from food production.
Its high oil yield and ability to grow on marginal land were
attractive, but its commercial promise was overstated. Some
farmers found that it needed fertiliser to thrive and that its
harvesting and processing proved energy-intensive.
Researchers at Australia's Queensland University said
pongamia is a strong candidate to contribute significant amounts
of biofuel feedstock.
Another study funded by the Indian government last year said
pongamia has "immense potential" for use as biodiesel but that
more research is needed on improving optimal oil yields.
Some companies are betting on its commercial potential.
Tree Oils India Ltd has bought uncultivated land in India
for pongamia and jatropha plantations, while several Australian
firms are investing in pongamia plantations.
"Companies are looking more positively at pongamia, but the
challenge is to get the required yield, to get the plant to grow
and understand its productivity over a number of years," Thakur
"Another problem is its maturity, which is about five to
seven years, compared to jatropha, which is four to five years."
Gibraltar-based clean technology fund manager Mareeba Oil
claims it can produce pongamia crops for biodiesel in three to
four years, however.
Mareeba launched a fund last month to raise up to 10 million
pounds to plant pongamia trees in Australia.
Its partner Burman Bioenergy has developed methods to
cultivate oil from pongamia faster than from jatropha or palm.
"There is a four-year lead-in before we see crops at
commercial scale, but that shouldn't put us off. There is clear
demand for a new product which provides good returns and helps
us all," fund director William Redford said.
"Now there is no market as such for millettia (pongamia),
but within 18 months there will be lots of plantations
established," he said.
Mareeba has identified an area in north Queensland
previously used for tobacco farming for its first plantation.
Each tree should produce at least 60 kilograms of oil a year,
and there should be over 1,850 trees per hectare, he said.
Some experts say pongamia may be better suited to
small-scale production on marginal land, which may put less
potential strain on land usage than plantation farming.
India has recognised the potential for small-holders to grow
the tree on marginal land and has encouraged them to plant
around 25 million trees since 2003 and has bought the seed pods
for processing into biodiesel.
"Maybe it has potential. We looked at jatropha but backed
away as we couldn't work out how it would work at scale.
Similarly, this is best suited to a small holder environment as
a cash crop," said Philip New, head of BP Biofuels .
(editing by Jane Baird)