High hopes and initial enthusiasm gradually gave way to a sobering reality: that finding a viable replacement for oil in the modern economy is an extremely difficult proposition. To get a sense of just how difficult, consider the saga of jatropha curcas.
The poisonous, oil-yielding weed was all the rage among biofuel enthusiasts in 2007, when a Goldman Sachs report claimed jatropha biodiesel would cost just $43 a barrel to produce. But domesticating jatropha has proven difficult.
And in June a team of Dutch researchers published a study which showed that producing biodiesel from jatropha consumed more water than a variety of crops including soybeans and corn. Other scientists, however, criticized that study, saying the Dutch team based its conclusions on inadequate data.
Yet even with all this uncertainty, two San Diego County companies are betting on jatropha being a big part of the biofuel mix. Encinitas-based S.G. Biofuels, and La Jolla’s Synthetic Genomics, are plowing ahead with their efforts to make the wild weed viable for cultivation.
Impressed by its potential, countries like India and Brazil rushed to plant jatropha during the last few years. In the United States, entrepreneurs have tried growing jatropha in Florida and in Southern California. The results have been mixed and often disappointing.
Part of the problem is that just like most algae strains, jatropha is a wild plant, says Steve Briggs, a professor of cell biology at University of California, San Diego. “The thing that’s holding both of these crops back is that they’re undomesticated,” Briggs says. “The key is to improve them to the point where they can sustain commercial operations.”
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