It was first mentioned in the Bible – now three Israeli companies are looking to commercialize the oil of the castor plant, and hopefully make it into a world-leading source of biofuel.

A cornucopia of alternative and renewable fuels, American clean technology experts recognize, is what the world needs to wean itself from foreign oil. Rising to the challenge are three powerful Israeli companies – alternative energy company Ormat, plant breeding company Evogene, and the real estate developer Lev Leviev Group.

An agreement was signed last week between Lev Leviev’s subsidiary L.L. Biofuel Namibia, Orfuel, a subsidiary of Ormat, and Evogene, to create and commercialise biofuel from castor oil. Leviev already owns mining concessions in Nambia, where the biofuel will be harvested, Orfuel has substantial experience in biofuel R&D, and Evogene is a world leader in plant genetics and breeding.

The new biofuel super-company assumes a temporary name Leviev-Evogene Namibia Ltd. Headquartered in Namibia it will maintain its operations in Namibia and possibly other locations in Africa in the future.

Castor-based biodiesel is expected be a substantially cheaper alternative than biodiesel developed from crops such as canola and soybeans, Liat Cinamon, a PR rep from Evogene, tells ISRAEL21c. Additionally, castor varieties can be grown on poor soil, where food crops cannot be grown – an important consideration, because it means that the biofuel does not compete with crops for food in the global and local marketplace.

While castor plants already grow wild and freely in Israel, the fact that it grows in hot climates and in poor soil, says Cinamon makes it a good candidate for a biofuel. But the local castor plants which sprout up in abandoned corners of Tel Aviv – as prolific as the city’s street cat population that live among the plants – was not the inspiration for commercializing castor oil’s potential, she says.

Oil of biblical proportions

Castor oil and products derived from the plant had applications in a number of industries before biodiesal developers caught on to its potential. It is used in the production of soaps, softeners, lubricants, paints, dyes, nylon, plastics, perfumes and pharmaceuticals. Despite some toxic elements, such as ricin, castor oil seeds produce a very high yield of oil – about 50 percent of its total weight.

The plant is also believed to be the unusual “kikayon” plant that grew over Jonah after he washed up on shore in Nineveh, according to the biblical Book of Jonah.

Back to present day – according to the agreement Evogene will select and provide the best castor varieties for producing biofuel; L.L. Biofuel will provide logistics and land, while Orfuel will share its biofuel R&D. Last year Evogene and Orfuel starting collaborating in this area, and began a pilot plant in Israel’s Negev Desert, where they are growing about five acres of the crop for testing purposes.

A new model for biofuel production

Says Cinamon, “Actually we are pushing the performance of the castor plant to grow in non arable land – where there is low precipitation, and high temperatures. We have demonstration and field tests here,” she adds, noting that Israel is not a place where the new biodiesel company would be working on a large scale.

About 250 to 500 thousand acres of land in Africa is expected to be developed – a large continual tract so that harvesting the oil seeds can be mechanized.

Optimal castor cultivars will be ready in about three years, says Cinamon, noting that Evogene is looking to build on the business model made with the Israeli consortium – to sell and grow its castor oil wonder-plants in other regions of the world. The seeds will be bred for optimum biodiesel yield, and will not be genetically modified, she points out.

According to Evogene, the companies already have 18 months of research invested in the project, and a commercial product is expected to be ready within two years. Evogene’s CEO Ofer Haviv said in an Israeli newspaper: “The plants we distribute at first won’t be the best possible, and I believe that they will improve with time. Our ambition is to be a world leader in performance of castor varieties for biodiesel.”

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