Feedstock company develops jatropha research center

By Erin Voegele | January 18, 2011

Global Clean Energy Holdings Inc. is leading efforts to develop a new nonprofit research organization focused on developing high-yielding commercial varieties of jatropha. Activities at the Center for Sustainable Energy Farming are focused on research in genetics, breeding and horticulture, as well as the development of technologies and processes that will allow for the economic commercialization of sustainable energy farming around the world.

“In our view, the only way that [jatropha], or any energy plant, will be successful is if it’s optimized in all these areas,” said Richard Palmer, CEO of Global Clean Energy Holdings and trustee of the Center for Sustainable Energy Farming. “You need to optimize the soil science, the plant science and the agricultural technologies to be able to maximize the plant’s growth production. This includes reducing all of the input costs, improving yields, and minimizing the effects of plant diseases and pests.”

A primary goal of the center is to reduce the inputs required to grow jatropha, thereby increasing its sustainability and value as a biofuel feedstock. Activities at the center are aimed at reducing the use of all the inputs that are needed to grow the crop—including fossil fuels, pesticides, water and fertilizers—while working to increase oil yields and quality. The improvements will be accomplished through a combination of plant biotechnology, focused breeding, agronomic research, and improved horticultural technologies and practices. The center aims to improve yields by 300 percent and reduce inputs by 30 percent within 10 years.

“We feel this is an attainable goal, considering the successes with other crops, which have achieved large production increases through genomics and structured breeding programs,” said Siela Maximova, a research associate professor at Pennsylvania State University, and the center’s director of research.

According to Palmer, the center is designed to be a platform for multidisciplined research. “We will utilize existing technology and research facilities, and we will expand out to other researchers,” he said. “[Global Clean Energy Holdings] currently has a field research station in Mexico. In that field research station we provide laboratory and other technical support. We have scientists on staff there that include agronomists, nutritionists, pathologists and entomologists.” The research station in Mexico will support the field testing work needed for commercialization, while the genetic component of the center’s work is being led by Penn State at the university’s laboratories.

What we have found, Palmer noted, is that research and development activities around jatropha have been localized and fractionated. Different groups around the world who are active in this area haven’t been sharing the science, which is very inefficient. “What you end up with is a lot of researchers following the same paths over and over again,” he said. “The purpose of the center is to be able to bring in different research from varying groups and not have them [worry] that somebody is going to steal their intellectual property. They will be able to leverage off of what the team has learned, so we can get this plant to mass propagation very quickly. This isn’t a genetic race to determine who can develop the most genetic highly bred varieties. This is a race to commercialization. We need hundreds of thousands of hectares of this planted, producing large volumes of biofeedstocks, as opposed to a few acres of highly producing plants.”

In addition to founding the center, Global Clean Energy Holdings is also its first funder. According to Palmer, two groups have financially contributed to the initiative to date. “So far, the funding has come from for-profit commercial and industrial entities,” Palmer continued. “They have provided donations into the center. These are companies that want to see sustainable energy farming become a reality. They farm to produce feedstock at a cost-competitive level because they want to be able to use the feedstock directory or be able to farm the trees.” The center is also seeking donations from nonprofit groups. “The plan of the center is to be funded through a combination industry partners, and donations coming from nonprofit foundations and government grants—both national and international,” he said.

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