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May 31, 2008

D1 Oils criticised for being naive about jatropha's biofuel potential

Alternative fuels company D1 Oils has been criticised for expecting too much too soon from its jatropha biofuel crop.

The criticism comes less than a week after the company announced it was closing its biodiesel plants in Middlesbrough (UK), which employs 40 people and Merseyside, where 47 jobs will go.

D1 is now devoting its energies to growing jatropha, which it had been processing in its refineries. It plans to boost cultivation to 2.5 million acres from the current 500,000 acres growing in India and Africa. It is the exclusive supplier of jatropha to its joint venture with oil company BP, called D1-BP Fuel Crops Ltd.

But the value of jatropha, which produces seeds that are used to extract vegetable oil, is coming under question. Raymond Jongschaap, from the plant sciences group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said: “The major concern is that people have too high expectations of the crop.”

He said studies had looked at the yields from 20 to 30-year-old trees, which were not comparable to young, newly planted ones. Young jatropha trees need time to mature before they can produce high yields. “There is an extrapolation that does not work for jatropha. It is not a good measurement, only guesses and estimates,” he said. “I really think there is a future for jatropha but we have to realise it is still a wild species.”

He also criticised D1’s plans to cultivate jatropha in areas with poor quality soil: “The plant will grow in marginal soils. It survives under those circumstances but it does not produce under those circumstances.”

However, D1 said the company had made it very clear it was investing heavily in plant science.

A spokesman said: “We a have always been very conservative about the yields. I don’t believe D1 has ever said jatropha is a miracle crop. We have always said it requires care, maintenance and the application of good science. We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t believe it would work.”

He also countered criticism jatropha was a poisonous weed: “Jatropha is not toxic, neither is it a weed. It is not invasive. Jatropha will only spread with the intervention of man.”

D1, which was founded by North East entrepreneur Karl Watkin, who retains a 3% stake in the business, announced at last week’s AGM that group finance director Chris Tawney was leaving.

The AIM-listed business made a loss of £46.1m in the year to December and last month raised £14.9m through a share issue to provide funds to support the company into next year.

NE Business

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