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Adholeya is also working on genetically modifying jatropha to improve its yields. He leads a team of 20 microbiologists, molecular biologists, and field breeders who are looking for the genes in jatropha that cause it to fruit so that they can enhance the percentage of oil in the seed. He expects that it will take 18 months to isolate the genes and begin working to enhance them. The researchers plan to use a technique called molecular-assisted breeding, in which they identify a gene of interest, select particular genotypes, and breed them. Adholeya expects that by 2012, modified jatropha plants will be in cultivation.

He says that the Indian government, taking note of a report by TERI, is considering a national initiative around developing jatropha crops as a major source of fuel. That report calls for India to plant 400,000 hectares of jatropha in 22 of India’s 28 states.

India is not alone in its interest in jatropha. Indonesia’s government is promoting jatropha cultivation, as are several governments in Africa. Jatropha is attractive because of several desirable properties: it can grow in poor soil and survive drought; it’s a perennial with an economic life of about 35 to 40 years; and it only needs two to three years to develop into a cash crop.

Jatropha seeds, when crushed, produce large quantities of an oil that can easily be converted to biodiesel that performs at levels close to that of conventional diesel oil. In fact, a hectare of jatropha produces 1,892 liters of fuel, which is better than rapeseed and far better than soybean or corn, according to data gathered by the Global Petroleum Club, an energy networking organization funded by the private-equity firm Forrest Equity Management.

“Jatropha is a one-stage conversion [to biodiesel],” says Adholeya, explaining that converting the plant oil to an oil that can be burned as fuel requires only one stage of heating and mixing with methanol. The resulting fuel, he says, “is a very good quality diesel that can be used in any transport vehicle.”

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