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SALINAS SCENE: Salinas Valley brain trust may make considerable contribution to biofuel

An inedible, toxic fruit could be the best thing that has happened to the burgeoning movement in biofuels, and agribusiness talent from the Salinas Valley and surrounding areas could help tip the balance in favor of that fruit becoming the biofuel source of choice worldwide.

The seeds from the fruit of the jatropha plant -- which grows best in warm, dry climates such as are found in West Africa and India -- contain oil that is being refined for biodiesel. Blended with regular diesel, the mixture contributes to the reduction of carbon emissions from diesel engines. Indeed, jatropha may have the highest energy payback of any biofuel. Research shows that the oil inside its seed burns cleaner than fossil fuels and produces one- fifth the emissions of conventional fuel.

The energy needed to produce jatropha oil is less than 10 percent of the oil obtained. Because jatropha can be produced inexpensively, it can be sold at prices lower than gasoline.

Because jatropha plants are able to grow in poor soil conditions and with little water, growing jatropha plants does not involve taking agricultural land out of production. By contrast, nearly all other biofuel sources divert potential food crops (soy, rapeseed, corn, palm, etc.) to create biofuels.

Enter Salinas-area entrepreneur Chuck Fishel, who has held senior management, finance and legal roles with Fortune 100 multinational organizations as well as start-up companies.

Mr. Fishel recognized an opportunity unfolding with jatropha oil and joined forces with American expatriate serial entrepreneur Jack Holden, the conceptual founder of Ghana-based Gold Star Biodiesel Ltd. Mr. Holden has lived in Ghana for more than 25 years and has developed successful agricultural operations in West Africa.

Gold Star Biodiesel Ltd. began commercial production of biodiesel in August and is in discussions to license a breakthrough biodiesel refining technology. The firm has acquired rights to more than 5 million acres in Ghana alone, which the company believes will produce about 1.5 billion gallons of biofuel per year when fully planted.

The company has secured an agreement with the government of Ghana and its two major bus companies to purchase 100 percent of the biodiesel produced by Gold Star and entered into a contract with a very large London Stock Exchange-listed company to supply all of its biodiesel requirements by growing jatropha on about 200,000 acres of its own land.

According to Mr. Fishel, Gold Star does profit-sharing with tribes and could find itself managing all worldwide exports of fresh produce out of West Africa, including items such as yams, pineapples and coconut from Ghana.

Mr. Fishel, who is CEO of Gold Star, has tabbed a half-dozen or more business associates from the Salinas Valley and surrounding areas to fill key upper-level positions at Gold Star. For instance, Gold Star's senior agronomist is James Barlow, who is based in Morgan Hill in Santa Clara County, a short biodiesel-fueled ride from the Salinas Valley. Mr. Barlow is founder and president of Soilweb Inc., which manufactures and distributes lines of biological products to growers for general crop-production uses, including the biological control of numerous pests and diseases.

Gold Star has plans for biodiesel projects in other countries in West Africa, as well as Central America, South America and the Caribbean. The company's focus is on providing biodiesel for the economies where it is growing the jatropha trees. Unlike some biofuel projects, Gold Star's project does not involve deforestation.

Mr. Fishel will make a pitch for funding at Cleantech 2007, a multi- disciplinary and multi-sector conference on global sustainability that is co- located with the 10th annual Nanotech 2007 conference in late May in Santa Clara, CA.