Thursday, February 28, 2013

Jatropha for Dummies - Part 2 - The plant's future is non-toxic

Non-toxic jatropha fruit cluster
Fruit cluster on a non-toxic breeding plant (Bionic orchard, Ghana)
After lots of painful experience during the first generation of commercial Jatropha projects - attempting to exploit the toxic plants potential for biodiesel - many are skeptical regarding a possible success for this cop. Still, groups of professional plant developers have formed worldwide working to convert the wild species Jatropha curcas into a viable commercial energy crop. Combined with an ever increasing flow of scientific reports exploring all aspects of this promising species it can be seen by now: success will only be a matter of time.

While contemporary reports on Jatropha development usually keep staring at incumbent  farming projects which are still struggling with all the typical generation 1 problems, be it planting material or agronomic practices, Jatropha has long shown its enormous potential in all aspects of planting material improvement. The results are clearly visible in the breeding orchards around the world and in many insider reports.

The future of Jatropha is non-toxic, which will make it one of the most profitable crops for farmers ever planted. After pressing the oil from the seeds the remaining seed cake will be a highly valuable raw material for animal feed mixes exceeding even the protein content of soy meal. Jatropha seed meal was falsely considered inevitably toxic and difficult to detoxify. The solution to the problem is the creating of non-toxic cultivars based on wild accessions from the center of origin as parental material. Here at Bionic Palm we are among the world leaders in this sector of plant development...

Protein rich feed materials are in high demand around the world and increasingly expensive. Therefore non-toxic Jatropha is not only breaking the profitability barrier for Jatropha farming projects but also reversing the feed price squeeze in many tropical regions thus allowing poultry rearing and aquaculture to become good SME businesses ounce again.

There is a wide genetic diversity in Jatropha germplasm formerly unexploited which can be found at the center of origin. This allows successful breeding for improved planting material including the introduction of the non-toxic trait. Interspecific hybridization offers a second route to an increased genetic spread for selection of superior traits. Bionic Palm has been using both aspects systematically from the very beginning of the Jatropha Breeder 3.0 program.

Jatropha is ideal in support of advanced agroforestry concepts helping to reclaim depleted soil formerly used for mining and unsustainable farming. With a growing environmental awareness in developing countries requirements are increasing for mining operations to reduce their environmental impact including carbon emissions. Non-toxic Jatropha offers enormous possibilities to convert growing sustainability budgets from simple cost items into effective investments as mining operations are usually also large energy consumers.

Jatropha alleys for vegetable planting
Alleys of pruned Jatropha prepared for vegetable planting (Bionic test farm, Ghana)
Jatropha can play a major role in adaptation to the effects of climate change in the tropical and sub-tropical regions. Advanced Jatropha cultivars will exhibit an increased drought tolerance and offer capabilities to withstand the expected climatic changes in the tropics. Jatropha hedges planted in combination with food crops under irrigation will help protect the latter from the increasingly harsh environmental situation.

See also:
Jatropha for Dummies - Part 1 - The problem
Jatropha for Dummies - Part 3 - The Farming

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

New Bionic µBTL reactor type announced

Bionic microfuel mf60 core element expecting assembly
Over the last year the Bionic Fuel Group has designed a new small scale MWDP reactor mf60 which is currently under construction at Bionic's manufacturer Smeral Brno a.s. in the Czech Republic. One of the special features of the mf60 design is its capability to house a complete plant in up to 4 standard 40' containers, resulting in completely mobile MWDP processing plants. Combined with the relevant feedstock preparation modules and the necessary oil upgrading functions all MWDP feedstock types can be processed on this mobile platform. On average the unit is able to process 250kg of dry feedstock per hour.

As a reminder, MWDP, Bionic's microwave depolymerization technology economically converts organic materials like biomass, plastic waste, used tires and many more into high value liquid and solid fuels. The process utilizes a zeolite catalyst augmented by the application of modulated microwaves.

Once the core unit is completed it will undergo rigid test processing at the manufacturer's site, first internally and then under audit of a renown certification authority. The formal certification will greatly enhance funding options for several large microfuel projects currently in the pipeline. Selected clients will have the opportunity to see the unit in operation during this phase.

Subsequently the qualification plant will be adapted to fully simulate the process of plastic waste conversion. Extensive test and demonstration runs will be performed in order to fully qualify plastic waste as feedstock for large scale microfuel plants. This activity will form an important step towards a scale up process resulting in a full scale pilot plant to be installed at a waste treatment facility in Germany.

As still another step the equipment will thereafter go back to the manufacturer to get rigged up for the planned 4 container set up including all the auxiliary modules necessary for feedstock preparation and product upgrading. The included CHP does not only make the plant independent from external power supply but is also capable of converting all of the produced oil into electricity thus reducing disposal problems for shorter term demonstration runs. This fully mobile plant will go on tour to visit several of our long term potential clients for extensive on-site test and demonstration runs in preparation for long planned large plant orders.

Surprisingly we have already received a number of requests from clients who show high interest to acquire this size of plant for their own specialty purposes. Clean-up of contaminated soil and biochar production are only 2 of the potential commercial uses for this type of unit. Bionic expects to close a number of orders over the first 6 months of the year. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Jatropha patents and intellectual property

Recently we performed a simple patent search for "Jatropha". The result was quite stunning! Lots of patents have been granted or are under application regarding the commercial exploitation of this interesting plant.

So let's group them a little bit:
  1. Superior (or special) Jatropha cultivars and methods to create the same
    Includes several hybrid developments by Nandan and an attempt by SG Biofuels Ltd. to patent a male-sterile trait in Jatropha. (More about the latter follows below)
  2. Genetic manipulation of certain traits
    Specifically Joil's approach to improve Jatropha oil quality through the transfer of a certain gene sequence from Castor. (We keep arguing that the same result can be achieved by conservative breeding, no GMO necessary)
  3. Mass propagation of Jatropha
    Mainly but not exclusively about tissue culture, i.e. protocols for in-vitro vegetative propagation.
  4. Detoxification of Jatropha
    Several combinations of chemical and/or mechanical separation processes can do the job.
  5. Jatropha-to-fuel processing methods
    Special methods for producing biodiesel and other fuels from Jatropha and Jatropha oil respectively.
We started checking patent regulations to find out what can really be patented in and around a plant or better, what cannot be patented. And I can tell you, that's one of the most confusing quagmires our great politicians ever created. Anyway, there are 2 globally common denominators we can highlight here:
  1. No wild plant or trait of a wild plant can ever be protected by a patent (or plant breeders rights), even if it was discovered for the very first time.
  2. Any variety protected by a patent or other plant breeder rights can be used by other breeders for further breeding without any obligations to license the original material.
Now we are specifically looking at an SG Biofuels patent application regarding a "female-only" trait in Jatropha curcas which would have serious consequences for our Jatropha Breeder 3.0 platform and others if ever granted. The patent application claims a male-sterile trait in Jatropha which is described as the result of expert hybrid breeding and not further qualified by DNA fingerprinting. If hybrid crossing, as claimed, would be the only way known of obtaining this important trait for breeders, everyone would be out of luck by now. Fortunately for us and the industry, Bionic Palm is in possession of several male-sterile Jatropha plants which are direct descendants of wild Jatropha plants at the center of origin in Guatemala and Mexico. No breeding or crossing was ever involved in their creation.

Therefore above exclusion no1 applies: a trait present in a wild plant can never be patented. We will have to wait and monitor carefully, if patent authorities in any of the many countries where this application is running in parallel will overlook the disclosure by Bionic Palm and grant the patent. In this case a formal complaint will have to be filed within 9 months.

In our opinion this little case story reveals how dangerous the IP arena has become for everyone. And how risky it is, not to constantly monitor new applications in your field of work. Patents today are viewed very differently by different organizations. While most simply and rightly just want to protect their development work, some seem to be eager making the accumulation of patented IP the core of their business, often benefiting from the work of others in the process.

A few weeks ago we had not expected, that Jatropha plant development has started becoming a playing field for IP hawks like Information Technology or Mobile Communication. But that definitely seems to be the case...