Local startup's discoveries could create biofuel, shake up energy market

ENCINITAS, Calif. - A local company is attracting national headlines for a series of discoveries that could shake up the energy market.        

Inside a greenhouse in Encinitas, a venture is bearing fruit, as in the inedible fruits of the jatropha plant. Native to Central America, it grows on marginal lands where food crops typically do not grow.

When harvested, the seeds can be refined into fuel. The jatropha seed is packed plant oils. If you put a flame to it, it burns.

Some six years ago, the plant fueled a rush of investment for biofuels.

Some airlines used it for jet fuel, but the plant eventually fell out of favor because the bushes yielded too few seeds to be profitable.

Enter San Diego startup, SGB. Led by chief scientist Robert Schmidt, the firm used molecular genetics and DNA sequencing to create a superplant. Instead of handful of fruit, there are dozens in a cluster. The oil content in each seed has also doubled.

"Everybody told us it was impossible to make plant-based product competitive with a petroleum-based product, and we've done just that," said Kirk Haney, CEO of SGB.

Right now, oil hovers at about $100 a barrel. The company says jatropha oil can be more than competitive, a possibility just featured in a New York Times article.   

"Data suggests lower than $99 a barrel … and in some instances, as low a $60-a-barrel production cost," said Haney.

Turning that oil into gas for most cars remains too costly, but jatropha has the potential to become a dominant player in the jet fuel and diesel fuel markets, as countries mandate the use of low-carbon fuels.

SGB has drawn the attention of energy giants and airlines, producing partnerships that will lead to more than 250,000 acres of jatropha farms across the world.

Still, analysts say the big challenges remain. Farmers remain wary of the plant's past and must be convinced to grow this new version.

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