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Jun 1, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 11)

San Diego Pioneers Cleantech Solutions

Established Biotech Cluster Takes the Lead In Reducing Country’s Dependence on Fossil Fuels

  • Substance, Not Hype

    Click Image To Enlarge +
    SG Biofuels makes biodiesel from Jatropha curcas, a nonedible shrub that grows wild in Central America.

    Crude oil doesn’t only come from oil wells; some plants make oil in their seeds that could be used for making biodiesel or bioplastics. SG Biofuels focuses on Jatropha curcas, a fast-growing, nonedible shrub that grows wild in Central America. Its seeds contain up to 40% oil, which “is of excellent quality for making biodiesel and for blending with aviation fuel,” according to Robert Schmidt, Ph.D., chief scientist at SG Biofuels and a plant biologist at the University of California San Diego. Unfortunately, “there’s been lots of hype, but little credible development of Jatropha,” adds Kirk Haney, president and CEO.

    Current yields of oil from cultivated Jatropha reach 200–300 gallons per acre, which is five times more than from soybeans and twice that of canola yields. Classic plant-breeding experiments, now under way in greenhouses, will substantially boost the oil content of seeds and allow Jatropha to grow in colder temperatures. Additionally, Jatropha is a nonfood crop, sparing it from a public backlash by those opposed to deriving biofuels from food crops.

    Once Jatropha is genetically improved, “production costs for the oil could be well under $1 per gallon,” says Haney. The company is developing Jatropha plantations on marginal land in Central America. The plants’ seeds will be crushed to produce crude oil to sell to local refineries. “We have a platform that will grow for the next five to ten years,” predicts Haney.

    Like Jatropha, microalgae are another potential source of oil often surrounded by more hype than substance. Mario Larach, chairman of Kai BioEnergy, plans to bring a credible voice to microalgae.

    Kai is the Hawaiian word for ocean, which is suitable for the firm since its technology is based on marine diatoms that produce light sweet crude oil of a quality suitable for aviation fuel. “The fuel produced by microalgae probably will be better than fossil fuels because it is not contaminated with sulfur,” says Larach.

    Kai BioEnergy holds a patent from the University of Hawaii that insures the growth of diatom monocultures, and it  invented an environmentally friendly, water-based extraction method to pop open diatoms to release the oil.

    One acre of microalgae can yield up to 15,000 gallons of ethanol. Other advantages of microalgae include its preference to grow on substandard land in brackish salt water. Microalgae also require carbon dioxide, so production ponds can be placed near power plants to capture and recycle the polluting greenhouse gas. Moreover, the diatom shells, which are 60% high-quality silica, can be recycled as a filtration material.

    Kai BioEnergy developed its prototype methods on a half-acre pond in Hawaii. Now Larach is scouting for 50 acres near  San Diego to scale up production. “San Diego is an optimal location because of its scientific talent, access to farmland, ideal weather, and huge demand for clean energy products,” says Larach.

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