Jatropha without hybridization is a biofuel failure

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Seeds from drought-resistant jatropha plants were thought to be the next big biofuel source a few years ago, and the New York Times reports that hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in this supposedly emerging agricultural industry.

It became apparent quite quickly that the wild jatropha bush yielded too few seeds to produce enough oil to be profitable. But one company reportedly pushed forward in developing plants worth investment using “molecular genetics and DNA sequencing technology” to develop hybrid plant strains in much less time than conventional breeding would have required.

The SGB company claims its hybrid plants can produce the seeds for jatropha-based biofuel competitive with petroleum prices of $99 a barrel, by increasing seed production by as much as 900 percent, the New York Times reporter Todd Woody wrote.

Those companies’ that haven’t developed improved jatropha plants are not able to compete without petroleum oil being much higher priced. And the companies that promoted the planting of wild jatropha haven’t made earning new interest in hybrid jatropha easy, although some companies have stepped forward to take a chance on SGB.

SGB claims to have business deals in place to plant 250,000 acres of its jatropha in Brazil, India and other countries, with the expectation to eventually produce about 70 million gallons of biofuel a year. At competitive prices to petroleum-based fuel, a lot of companies are interested in using the biofuel.

Jim Rekoske, vice president for renewable energy and chemicals at Honeywell, is one executive quoted in the New York Times article as saying, “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.”

Since the jatropha bushes aren’t into full production, the concern by many, including Rekoske, is whether greenhouse seed production can be matched by field commercial operations.

Woody wrote, “For now, SGB plans to license 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.”

To read the full New York Times article click here.

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