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February 28, 2010

Former wonder crop Jatropha gets a brand new life through biotechnology

by Jonathan Fahey

Like Hollywood, the world of biofuels has its celebrity crops: They are suddenly darlings, then just as suddenly they are all but forgotten.

These days the hot crop is algae. Dozens of well-funded companies are trying to coax algae to produce oils or alcohols that can be used to power planes, trains and Hondas. For a time it was switchgrass, a prairie grass that needs little cultivation.

Jatropha also had its time. This shrubby tree was said to be indestructible. It could grow in terrible soil with hardly any water, it could fight off pests, and its seeds were jam-packed with oil.

"The hype was correct," insists Kirk Haney, the chief executive of SG Biofuels, a San Diego company that hasn't given up on jatropha. "But just because it grows everywhere doesn't mean it produces a profitable yield."

This is what SG Biofuels says it can now deliver. SG Biofuels has spent the last three and a half years amassing a library of jatropha breeds and jatropha DNA and systematically developing and combining attributes in order to produce a consistent plant that farmers can bank on. "Jatropha hadn't been put through a domestication program," says Haney.

This week JG Biofuels unveiled its first commercial product, a variety called "J-Max 100" that the company says produces a yield that is a full 100 per cent better than regular jatropha. The company has begun working with the life sciences tools company Life Technologies, which is also an SG Biofuels investor, to comb through jatropha DNA to improve the plant even further.

Jatropha is a shrubby tree native to Central America that produces apricot-sized fruit that each contains a trio of grape-sized seeds that are about 30 per cent oil. Humans can't eat the oil--it's toxic, but it makes great biodiesel and jet fuel.

The plant was brought from Central America and the Caribbean to India and Africa by Portuguese explorers. Cows avoided its waxy leaves, so they used jatropha plants to make living fences.

It is so hardy, and its seeds are so oily, that for a time it seemed the perfect biofuel crop -- a non-food plant that grew on land that wasn't good for growing food anyway. Oil giant BP and others invested in jatropha companies, only to give up when it became clear that in order to work economically, jatropha couldn't just survive, it had to thrive. In order to thrive it needed lots of water and better land than first thought.

Haney says all jatropha needs is a little professional help. He says his new breed produces eight times more oil per acre than soybeans and four times more than rapeseed. And while it won't produce this kind of yield in a desert, it will on marginal pastureland that isn't good for growing food crops.

Unlike advanced biofuels like those that algae and switchgrass may someday produce, jatropha oil is easily converted to diesel or jet fuel through well-known methods. Haney says his jatropha can produce fuel at just $1.39 per gallon, or the equivalent of $58 per barrel of oil. It also has a much better carbon profile than plants like corn or soybeans, in part because the shrub doesn't have to be replanted every year.

The company's first variety is optimized for Guatemala, where the plant is native and where SG Biofuels has offices. With the help of Life Technologies, the company will work on rolling out varieties that will thrive in other locations, like India, where jatropha was heavily pushed a few years ago, and Africa. It is also working on a cold-tolerant strain for the United States.

The biofuels industry is more brutal even than Hollywood -- it is still waiting for its first box office blockbuster. Haney and SG Biofuels are a long way from proving they can even make jatropha a darling again.


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