ISTC Environmental Engineer Joe Pickowitz returned to Haiti recently to continue a multi-year effort to start the first bio-fuel production facility in the impoverished nation.
The success of the effort holds tremendous potential for building the Haitian economy by replacing expensive imported diesel for transportation and electric generators, as well as to help curb the burning of wood which denudes the countryside.
The project, co-founded by Kathleen Robbins of Champaign, who is director of Jatropha Pepinyè [a nonprofit Haitian business – which is administrated by Partners for People and Place (PPP) – a 501c(3) nonprofit], has made much progress.
Pickowitz and ISTC teamed up with Jatropha Pepinyè to help implement a biodiesel pilot plant to process the native feedstock. A biofuel production system has been completed in a sturdy building donated by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Interamerican Development Bank also financed a training center to teach farmers about growing Jatropha. The indigenous Jatropha tree grows in marginal soils, is unpalatable to insects, farm animals, and other wildlife, and its seeds are rich in natural oils.
The project has succeeded in building a system capable of producing 75 gallon batches of biofuel every two days. Partly owing to an extended Haitian drought, the more than 100 acres of trees are not yet producing sufficient biomass to make biofuel production profitable.
The production of soap, glycerin is a by-product of the biofuel production process, is breaking even just in sales to the region's hospitals, according to Robbins. A serious cholera epidemic on the island has made hand washing a high priority. Additional sales to cruise ship passengers and guests at high-end hotels has made the soap-making operation profitable.
To push the bio-fuel project forward, the team is looking into irrigation methods, drilling a deeper well and considering higher yield Jatropha varieties.
Providing Haiti's subsistence farmers with a sustainable fuel crop could double their income without reducing their ability to grow food. A home-grown fuel source would power electricity generation and transportation without having to purchase expensive foreign petroleum.