Jumpin' jatropha! Are our energy worries over?

San Diego's SGB startup domesticates oil-producing plant

Jatropha curcas image from Wikipedia
  • Jatropha curcas image from Wikipedia

The New York Times this morning, December 25, features a long, positive story on a San Diego startup company, SGB (seeds, genetics, biofuels), which is growing a plant named jatropha. The seeds of the Jatropha curcas plant contain between 27 and 40 percent oil — high-quality oil that can be refined into low-carbon jet fuel or diesel fuel.

Jatropha was hailed as the next advance in biofuels six years ago, but then the recession and collapse of funding mechanisms, along with problems with the plant, delayed its introduction. Now, says the Times, "Thanks to advances in molecular genetics and DNA sequencing technology, the San Diego startup has, in a few years, succeeding in domesticating jatropha, a process that once took decades."

SGB now says it can produce biofuels in quantities that it says are competitive with petroleums priced at $99 a barrel. "Oil is around $100 a barrel," says the Times. The successful breed is being called Jatropha 2.

President and chief executive officer is Kirk Haney. Board chairman is Jerry Caulder, managing director of Finistere Ventures, a San Diego venture-capital firm. In 1984 he became chairman and chief executive of Mycogen, which went public and later was acquired by Dow Agrosciences.

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Nice Christmas gift! It probably wouldn't take too long to get the cost below $99, because apparently the refining process is less intensive than the method utilized with fossil fuels.

Duhbya: It is indeed a nice Christmas gift if indeed the company has solved the plant problems that, along with financing woes, delayed things six years ago. Best, Don Bauder

Well, it looks like they've managed to partner with some heavy hitters this time, at least. The odor of big bucks is wafting.

Duhbya: Yes, there are some big bucks backing this, but this has been a big year for initial public offerings (IPOs) and venture capital investing. The Fed has created trillions of dollars of bucks, and kept interest rates at ridiculously low levels, and therefore it is no surprise that there is a lot of money around for projects, speculative and otherwise. Best, Don Bauder

The biggest question is how much the US can produce using its current stock of farmland. We were told a similar tale about ethanol a few years back, never mind that the entire US corn crop if used to produce grain alcohol, could not have met our gasoline needs. If this stuff can grow in areas that aren't particularly fertile, and uses little water, it could be a godsend. And indications are that it makes more sense than the so-called "biodiesel."

Visduh: Good points. The stuff is growing in several places around the world. But is there enough land? Good question. Best, Don Bauder

The richest dirt in California, Tracy, is overbuilt. If this stuff will grow around bakersfield without much water, coo, but otherwise it's a waste of water.

CaptainObvious: Actually, the world's biggest problem is not energy, but water. That is particularly true of San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, etc. Best, Don Bauder

what unforeseen pests ( insects) will this bring to the area?

Murphyjunk: If the idea flies (and that is no sure thing), we will just have to wait to see what insects will come in. Best, Don Bauder

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