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India’s Big Plans for Biodiesel

Researchers are developing new methods for cultivating a plant called jatropha.
December 27, 2006

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.

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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