SG Biofuels, Agrasun advance in jatropha research

By Lisa Gibson
Two U.S.-based companies have made advancements in their jatropha research. As one begins planting in Latin America, the other is working to develop strains that may be planted in colder temperatures in areas within the U.S.

California-based SG Biofuels has identified several strains of cold-tolerant jatropha and has initiated a breeding program to develop them as an oil-producing crop in colder U.S. climates.

The company has been working to develop several traits of the plant for the past three years, including increasing oil content, seed size and decreasing input requirements, among others. "Anything that will increase the quality of biomass," said Kirk Haney, president and CEO. The firm has collected a range of jatropha curcas from various climates and geographies around the globe and has the largest and most diverse collection in its recently launched Genetic Resource Center, Haney said, adding that the center has garnered a lot of attention.

The cold-tolerant strains were collected from various sites in Central America at elevations ranging from 1,600 meters (5,200 feet) to more than 1,800 meters (about 6,000 feet).

The average daily low temperature there between December and February is around 45 degrees Fahrenheit and temperatures at night fall below freezing, according to SG Biofuels.

Jatropha typically thrives in areas where the average minimum temperature is 60 degrees or more.

"This is one trait we've identified that we feel has a commercial value," Haney said. "This is something that could grow in the U.S. Really, what's valuable is making sure that trait exists in the highest yielding cultivars."

The plant is native to Central America and can be grown on abandoned lands unsuitable for food crops. It's limited, though, by its lack of tolerance for cold

Oil yields of 200 to 300 gallons per acre are possible with the proper site selection and agronomic practices. The plant also has very low input costs compared with other biofuel feedstocks, according to SG Biofuels.

"I think throughout the year, we'll continue to release information about commercially valuable traits that we've identified," Haney said. "And I think we'll continue to propel jatropha as one of the global market leaders for fuel production. It's a great feedstock, but it's also produced sustainably and profitably today."

Agrasun, a new energy company based in Florida, announced recently it will plant jatropha in Colombia and Mexico. A pilot project of less than 100 hectares (247 acres) is ongoing in the Meta region of Colombia and will expand to Sinaloa in Mexico, according to Michael Fisher, vice president of business development. Over the next 18 months, the company will begin planting for harvest and Fisher says about 1,500 hectares (3,706 acres) of jatropha will be planted each year.

The company is working with Live Systems Technology, an agriculture bioscience company in Colombia, to demonstrate the productivity of the concentrated growth of jatropha.

Unique to the project is its social development component, selected from the Eighth Annual Social Venture Plan Competition at the University of Notre Dame's Gigot Center. A team of current and former students developed the plan with concern for the "triple bottom line-people, planet and profits," according to Agrasun. The team traveled to Colombia to meet with the company's scientific partners, attend an international microfinance and peace-building conference and develop local contacts for collaboration.

Jatropha crops in Colombia will create jobs and provide an alternative to narcotics and the illicit drug trade, said Tess Bone, a Notre Dame graduate who helped create the plan.
"The social development role is the critical part," Fisher said.