ince graduating from Yale in May 2010 with a degree in environmental engineering, Noah McColl has been spending a great deal of time thinking about what to do with leftovers. Not leftovers from yesterday’s meal, but rather what some might have traditionally seen as industrial wastes from the process of making fuel out of green plants. McColl would prefer to see these not as wastes at all, but as resources that can become “co-products.”
Since shortly after graduating, McColl has been working as a liaison between Yale’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering
and an ambitious venture called the African Power Initiative (API) based in Kampala, Uganda. API, which also has begun operations in nearby Ethiopia, aims to pay farmers in the region to grow on otherwise marginal lands an array of hardy plants that yield oils that can be transformed into a chemical cousin of fossil-based diesel fuel, or biodiesel.
In the United States, existing federal mandates requiring biofuels to be mixed with gasoline have often faced intense criticism, not least because the most abundantly produced biofuel in the United States—ethanol—is made primarily from corn. That’s been a boon to corn farmers, who’ve been enjoying soaring prices, but according to a report in Technology Review
the mandates are “a major reason why food prices worldwide have reached record levels in the past several months.”
Thousands of miles from the cornfields of North America, API is approaching biofuel differently, aiming specifically not
to compete with food crops. A private company, API has set out to prove that it can make biodiesel economically competitive with expensive, imported fossil fuels in east Africa by taking advantage of what happens to be locally abundant: sunshine, inexpensive marginal land and farmers eager to find new ways to boost meager family incomes.
API has already begun to work with farmers to plant oil-yielding crops like castor, candlenut and jatropha. All of the targeted crops will grow on marginal soils under, at least, semi-arid conditions. Castor beans, for instance, will grow in sandy soils, jatropha in gravelly as well as sandy soils, and candlenut in a wide range of stony, clay or sandy locations. Castor can flower and set fruit with as little as 20 inches of annual rainfall; the other two crops need just a bit more water to be productive. As a point of reference, that’s about the yearly precipitation in semi-arid west Texas.