At first sight, it looks like a weed — a ragged shrub bearing sickly green fruit, growing across a plot of wasteland near the dump that overlooks Highway 101. It grows on almost any soil, and with hardly any rain. Its seeds are as toxic as any poison. But this unusual plant conceals an unlikely secret: The oil from its thick black seeds can be used to power your car. And this hardscrabble patch here in Santa Barbara is a project on the cutting edge of one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.
The plant is Jatropha curcas — also known as the Barbados nut or Physic nut, and originally brought to India from South America by Portuguese sailors centuries ago for use as a “living fence” that animals and insects instinctually avoid. Indian farmers soon found that the thick oil that came from crushed jatropha seeds could fuel their lamps. But it wasn’t until very recently that researchers found the same oil could also make diesel fuel. Since, jatropha has been the rising star of the biofuels boom in countries like India, where farmers are planting thousands of acres with this weed. In June, oil giant British Petroleum announced a joint venture to invest $160 million in jatropha. And in September, investment firm Goldman Sachs reported that biodiesel from jatropha could cost just $43 a barrel to produce — far less than corn ethanol or crude oil. But, in spite of all the interest, jatropha has never before been cultivated in the United States. That is, not until now.