Monday, Nov. 2, 2009 | It started with the corn-ethanol boom in 2004. Plants — whether algae or dinner table staples — were billed as the cure for our addiction to fossil fuels.
But 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.
The two companies are among about three dozen working on biofuels in San Diego, which has become a hub for the nascent industry. And though most of the firms are small operations or start-ups, they and their plants are being looked at as a future driver of the local economy.