Biofuel can be produced without clearing rainforest, raising CO2 emissions or displacing food production, according to the chief executive of D1 Oils, the British company pioneering oil from jatropha curcas in the developing world. And according to Elliott Mannis, the fuel could even work out cheaper than damaging first generation biofuels.
Jatropha is a hardy bush that can grow on relatively poor land in the tropics and subtropics, producing oily nuts which can then be processed to produce biofuel. D1 is contracting small farmers in countries such as India, Zambia and Indonesia to grow the crop on their marginal land, meaning that it "absolutely should not" compete with food production.
As a result the price of jatropha oil should trade in relation to crude oil rather than agricultural commodities. Speaking at the IP Week oil conference in London, Mr Mannis said that rape, soya and palm oil were trading between $1300 and $1500 per tonne in January, while that from jatropha cost around $600.
In joint venture with BP, D1 plans to plant 1 million hectares (10,000 square kilometres) over the next four years, costing £50 million in total. At current yields of 1.7 tonnes per hectare, that would produce about 12 million barrels of jatropha oil per year, against global oil consumption of around 86 million barrels per day. Around half the oil produced will be reserved for the country of origin, and half sold on international markets.
D1 expects new seed varieties to raise yields to around 2.7 t/ha, meaning that 1 million hectares could produce around 19 million barrels per year. At that rate, replacing current global oil consumption would require almost 1.7 billion hectares, equivalent to almost twice the land area of the United States. The improved yield would be substantially higher than rape or soya, but around half that of palm oil.
Mr Mannis acknowledged the scale of the challenge, but said "we want to do our part and make a meaningful contribution".
Mr Mannis distanced D1 Oils from a report of an incident last year in which Indian farmers were reportedly forced off their land to make way for jatropha, and insisted that in D1's experience the crop was "absolutely loved by the people putting it in. It's a true solution."
David Strahan is an award-winning investigative journalist and documentary film-maker who, since the early 1990s, has reported and produced extensively for the BBC's Money Programme and Horizon strands. Strahan is the author of The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man and is a trustee of the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre.