Will Jatropha be the next diesel airplane fuel?
In 2005 I wrote about biofuel made from jatropha, but excitement over the tropical plant was premature - that boom was a bust.
A good Christmas present: Jatropha is being re-engineered as diesel airplane fuel. Like many people I'm weirded out about genetic modifications (we have seen the horror movies) but this is pretty cool anyway.
Most jatropha bushes are descendants of plants grown on Cape Verde, an archipelago off Africa’s west coast. Cape Verde became the epicenter of jatropha farming 300 years ago, and a single strain of the plant, then valued as living fence to corral livestock, was exported to tropical regions around the globe.
As Dr. Schmidt combed the scientific literature on jatropha, he stumbled across a reference to an obscure 30-year-old paper by the botanist Bijan Dehgan... [who] traveled the world collecting and cataloging the 175 species of the plant, speculating that the species originated in Central America.
Following up on Dr. Dehgan’s thesis that Guatemala was a jatropha Eden, Dr. Schmidt [of SGB] went to Central America... “It was absolutely spectacular the amount of genetic variation that we collected from the center of origin,” he said.
It used to cost $150,000 to genetically map a jatropha line searching for useful mutations. Now it costs $350 and in 2014 it may cost as little as $50, allowing the identification of useful hybrids in the lab at the molecular level before the plants are actually crossbred. Wild jatropha bushes produce six to eight seed-bearing fruits. SGB has plants Guatemala producing 60 fruits in a cluster.
"This used to be a 10-year discovery process," Mr. Mathur said. "It's more like a 10-month process now."
SGB is also identifying the ability to withstand extreme heat or cold, potentially crucial as climate change accelerates.