DOE, GM grow jatropha in India

By Lisa Gibson
Posted April 8, 2010, at 11:02 a.m. CST

A 207.5-acre jatropha project in India aims to develop optimal growing and harvesting techniques for the oil-bearing crop, along with favorable characteristics such as frost tolerance and growth with less input.

General Motors Co. and the U.S. DOE have teamed up for the five-year project, enlisting help from the Central Salt & Marine Chemicals Research Institute, an India-based research lab of the Indian Government's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Ministry of Science & Technology. The CSMCRI will manage the three plots, two in Bhavngar and one near GM's India car manufacturing plant in Kalol. GM declined to disclose a project cost, but said it is funded jointly by GM and the DOE.

Jatropha oil is ideal for biodiesel production, as it has high oil content, can be grown on marginal lands and is cheaper than soy beans, which are commonly used to make biodiesel. "We are actually diesel short," said Candace Wheeler, GM technical fellow and biofuel lead at the company's Global Energy Systems Center. "We really need a good replacement for diesel as well as ethanol, which is a good replacement for gasoline."
The project will focus on jatropha species development as well as agronomics. "It grows, but no one's tried to cultivate it and plant it," Wheeler said. Research will determine if it's better to begin in a nursery before planting the shrubs in plots, how far apart shrubs should be planted, and much more, she said. "We certainly want to understand better how to grow the crops.

The project has been in the works for a while, Wheeler said, and GM has already determined that biodiesel from jatropha oil works well in its vehicles. "We kind of did the second part before the first part," she said. "We've been able to harvest and take jatropha oil and test it in our vehicles and it works."

India was chosen as the project location because it has a suitable climate, and because the country imports much of its petroleum, like the U.S., Wheeler said, so it also is working toward a more energy-independent future. In addition, GM has previously worked with the CSMCRI on jatropha optimization. "We've found them to be leaders in this area," she said. Jatropha requires warm climates and cannot be supported in most areas of the U.S., but the project seeks to develop a variety that can. Even if that can't be done, the research will help establish a global market for the fuel, Wheeler said.

"I really see a lot of potential in jatropha as an energy crop," she said. "I think you'll see jatropha grown more and more."