(EnergyAsia, February 24 2012, Friday) — JOil (S) Pte Ltd, a Singapore-based developer of the jatropha biofuel crop, said latest biotechnology processes could boost its oil yield from less than one ton of oil per hectare now to three tons.

The company said it could achieve this by using breeding, tissue culture and genetic engineering processes, as uncovered and explained by Hong Yan, JOIL’s chief scientific officer, at the INSULA/RSB conference on jatropha held at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France last December.

Dr Hong demonstrated in his presentation that biotechnology is the core science required to address jatropha’s present low yield.

“There was initially great excitement surrounding the use and commercial potential of jatropha in the early 2000s but this was followed by a wave of disappointment in India, Central America and Africa with poor yields as early plants were from seeds collected from wild accessions and had greater vulnerability to pests than anticipated,” he said. 

“The yield and better pest resistance of jatropha can be realised with biotechnology over time. At JOil, we are applying breeding, tissue culture and genetic engineering to develop a continuous pipeline of improved jatropha varieties.  We are also seeing very good field trial data for our new varieties with traits like better uniformity, improved self-branching, early flowering and higher productivity.

“More than two tons of seeds per ha was achieved for the first year in field trials on marginal land plots in southern India. Such continuous efforts on jatropha improvement will move the average productivity of jatropha from one ton of oil per hectare to about three tons of oil per hectare over the next seven to eight years.”

Sriram Srinivasan, JOIL’s chief financial officer, said:

“The demand for jatropha-derived biodiesel already exists among airlines and motor fleet operators. It is the supply-side of the equation that is holding up the adoption rate of biofuels.  We believe the turning point will come when jatropha plantation becomes commercially viable with the adoption of improved jatropha varieties and better agronomic practices.”

In his paper, Mr Srinivasan presented several scenarios for jatropha’s viability with the right mix of genetics and practices to improve its economics as a fuel crop.

If low quality planting material and low care is taken, he said the Internal Rate of Return (IRR) could be less than 10%, whereas with good quality planting material and good care, the IRR will be more than 25%. He also mentioned that with revenue from by-products from Jatropha for high end uses like animal feed, the IRR can significantly improve.