Imagine a plant you can grow in the barren oil fields of West Texas that when you process its berries, jet fuel worth billions of dollars comes out. And that crop is there because of America’s space program.
That’s what Richard Godwin and his Florida-based company, Zero Gravity Solutions Inc. (ZGSI), are hoping to make possible. The company, which just went public, is using space-based genetic research to modify a tropical plant called jatropha curcas to grow in the cooler environment of West Texas. The plant’s berries could produce up to five to six tons of fuel per hectare.
The key to the project has been experiments conducted on a series of space shuttle flights using a technique called “directed gene expression”. When plants are exposed to a microgravity environment, they perceive a threat and go into a survival mode. In the process, they activate genes that are normally dormant in a 1 gravity environment, Godwin said last week during the NewSpace 2013 conference in San Jose, Calif.
Researchers are working to identify which genes can be used to allow jatropha curcas to thrive in cooler environments outside of the tropics. That knowledge will be used to develop a varietal of the plant capable of thriving in the West Texas scrub lands. Several additional flights to the International Space Station are planned to continue the research.
West Texas is ideal because it contains a substantial oil and gas industry as well as land not being used to grow crops. Thus, jatropha curcas will not crowd out food crops as do other plants used to produce bio-fuels, Godwin said.
ZGSI is also working on producing a new varietal of the banana that would be immune to a blight that is now threatening crops, Godwin said. The same technique can be applied to other plants.
Godwin, who describes ZGSI as a zero-g biotech company, said he is seeing a sea change in terms of attitudes toward space research as companies begin to understand the value of the International Space Station as a research platform.
He predicted that his Boca Raton, Fla.-based would have revenues this year and products on the market by 2014.
Editor’s Note: This is fascinating. If successful,this could really start a gold rush in space research. Rather than having a space station that is under utilized, NASA and CASIS could end up with more experiments than they can fly. That would be a good position to be in, because it would spur demand for platforms like DragonLab and Bigelow’s private space station.
More broadly, this new bio-fuel would be one of several major developments — including the controversial fracking technique — that would collectively make the United States far less dependent on imported fuels.
The economic and geopolitical ramifications of such a shift could be quite profound. The nation’s balance of payments would improve while its vulnerability to oil shocks from abroad could greatly lessen. Meanwhile, the power of oil-rich nations and regions such as Russia and the Middle East would diminish.
On the other hand, a domestic economy more dependent upon oil and gas would be vulnerable to ups and downs in the market. One of the main reasons that Midland, Texas was interested in getting XCOR to move there was the need to diversify its economy. The city lies right in the middle of oil and gas fields of West Texas.
It’s possible, however, that the United States could hit a sweet spot: producing enough fuel domestically to reduce its reliance on foreign imports, while having an economy large and diverse enough to whether downturns in the oil and gas markets that would impact Texas and other energy producing states.