In an unmarked greenhouse, leafy bushes carpet an acre of land here tucked amid the suburban sprawl of Southern California. The seeds of the inedible, drought-resistant plants, called jatropha, produce a prize: high-quality oil that can be refined into low-carbon jet fuel or diesel fuel. The mere existence of the bushes is an achievement. Hailed about six years ago as the next big thing in biofuels, jatropha attracted hundreds of millions in investment, only to fall from favour as the recession set in and as growers discovered that the wild bush yielded too few seeds to produce enough petroleum to be profitable. But SGB, the biofuels company that planted the bushes, pressed on. Thanks to advances in molecular genetics and DNA sequencing technology, the San Diego start-up has, in a few years, succeeded in domesticating jatropha, a process that once took decades. SGB is growing hybrid strains of the plant that produce biofuel in quantities that it says are competitive with petroleum at $99 a barrel. Oil is trading around $100 a barrel. The company has deals to plant 250,000 acres of jatropha in Brazil, India and other countries expected to eventually produce about 70 million gallons of fuel a year.
That has attracted the interest of energy giants, airlines and other multi-national companies seeking alternatives to fossil fuels. They see jatropha as a hedge against spikes in petroleum prices and as a way to comply with government mandates that require the use of low-carbon fuels.
“It is one of the few biofuels that I think has the potential to supply a large fraction of the aviation fuel currently used today,’’ said Jim Rekoske, Vice-President for renewable energy and chemicals at Honeywell, who has visited the company’s jatropha plantations in Central America.
Rekoske and biofuel analysts said SGBs biggest challenge will be to replicate the yields it generates in the greenhouse on a commercial scale.
Given that this crop has somewhat of a checkered past, ultimately getting growers to plant the crop is going to be the key hurdle, says Michael Cox, an analyst at Piper Jaffray.
At the greenhouse, the fruits of SGB’s technology are apparent. A typical wild jatropha bush will produce a cluster of six to eight seed-bearing fruits, according to Robert Schmidt, a specialist in corn genetics who is SGB’s chief scientist. He picked up a grapefruit-size cluster growing on a hybrid jatropha plant and counted 37 fruits. We have examples in Guatemala where we have 60 fruits in a cluster, Schmidt said.
SGB’s success at improving jatropha seed yields by as much as 900 per cent persuaded a consortium that includes Airbus, BP and the Inter-American Development Bank to sign a deal with the company to plant 75,000 acres of jatropha in Brazil. The consortium, called JetBio, aims to develop sources of biofuel for the airline industry as the European Union, Australia and other countries impose caps on aviation carbon emissions.
The demand is huge every single airline would like to be flying on biofuel today, Rafael Davidsohn Abud, JetBios managing partner, said in an email.
Jatrophas value as a cash crop, though, may pale compared with a potential genetic gold mine SGB has begun to discover, identifying traits, for instance, that make certain strains of the plant resistant to extreme heat or cold.
If you figure out how to do heat tolerance for corn or soybeans, what is that trait worth as climate change accelerates? asked Arama Kukutai, Managing Director at Finistere Ventures, a San Diego venture capital firm that has invested in SGB.
For now, SGB plans to licence its technology to energy companies. But the company is securing patents on its hybridization process, creating a technology platform that can be deployed to discover genetic traits in other agricultural crops.
For instance, in November SGB signed a deal with Yulex Corp. to use its molecular breeding technology to increase the yields of guayule, a wild plant harvested as a replacement for petroleum-based rubber.
The technology also could be used to domesticate wild fruits and vegetables, company scientists said. They said the technology has the potential to unleash a new green revolution for a world that will need to grow 70 per cent more food by 2050, according to the United Nations, as agricultural productivity is slowing.