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Biodiesel could be an important renewable substitute for fossil fuels. And, in certain parts of the world, governments and some corporations consider the jatropha plant, common in hot climates, one of the most promising sources of biodiesel. The plant can grow in wastelands, and it yields more than four times as much fuel per hectare as soybean, and more than ten times that of corn. But the commercial-scale cultivation of jatropha, which has not previously been grown as a crop, raises several significant challenges.

This year, the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), an Indian research group, launched a 10-year, $9.4 million project to research issues involved in taking jatropha from seed to filling station. One challenge is growing the plant in poor soil.

The first crops of jatropha, planted in what was wasteland, have now flowered, says Alok Adholeya, director of TERI’s Biotechnology and Management of Bioresources division. “It proves that we can do this,” he says. He and other researchers at TERI spent five years testing different mycorrhiza microorganisms, symbiotic fungi that improve the ability of many plants to grow in poor soil. Adholeya’s team found that the most effective was a fungus in the glomus species (he is not currently disclosing the exact fungus), which improves jatropha yields by 15 percent.

The TERI project is working in rural Andra Pradesh, a state in southeast India, collaborating with local financial institutions to develop loan guarantees to fund seed purchases; it’s also collaborating with insurers to back the farmers against potential losses. In addition, it had to educate the farmers on how to cultivate the plant.

So far, the project has signed up 5,000 farmers representing 1,000 hectares of land. The goal is to have 8,000 hectares under cultivation by March 2008, and Adholeya says that the success of the first crops has drawn interest from many more farmers. By the end of 2008, TERI plans to have a production facility producing biodiesel from jatropha. Eventually, it aims to produce 90 million liters of biodiesel annually.

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