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GM Partners with U.S. Department of Energy to Develop Jatropha-to-Biodiesel Project in India


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
Jatropha curcas plant and seeds

DETROIT - March 30, 2010: General Motors today announced a five-year partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to help develop the potential of the jatropha plant as a sustainable biofuel energy crop. Traditionally considered a weed, jatropha plants produce an oil that can be refined into biodiesel.

The goal of the project is to demonstrate that jatropha can produce significant quantities of oil for conversion to biodiesel and to develop new varieties of the plant that have high yields, can withstand frost, and grow in temperate climates such as the United States. The drought-resistant, non-edible plant can be grown commercially with minimal care on marginal land.

"Discovering new sources for biodiesel production is an important part of DOE research and development efforts," said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. "The expertise of this team can help speed the pace for the development of jatropha as a biofuel crop."

Two jatropha farms will be established in India: a 16-hectare (39.5 acre) plot in Bhavngar and a 38 hectare (93.9 acre) plot in Kalol, near GM's India Car Manufacturing plant. An existing 30 hectare (74.1 acre) jatropha farm in Bhavnagar also will be managed under this project.

Lab-optimized strains of jatropha, produced through selective and marker-assisted breeding, will be cultivated at these farms. The joint DOE-GM funding will enable the Central Salt & Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI)--an India-based research facility falling under Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Ministry of Science & Technology, Government of India --to manage all of the 84 hectares (840,000 m2). A complete lifecycle analysis will be conducted to evaluate the environmental impacts, starting with fertilizer production from raw materials and ending with the harvesting of jatropha fruits.

"In the long term, if jatropha is commercially viable, it will reduce dependence on petroleum as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote economic growth," said Mike Robinson, GM Vice President of Environment, Energy and Safety Policy. "It would also boost GM India growth plans with biodiesel-capable products and reiterate GM India's commitment to green technology and alternate fuel solutions to reduce dependence on fossil fuel."

GM has invested in next-generation ethanol startups Coskata Inc. and Mascoma Corp. Coskata recently announced plans to join a consortium, in conjunction with GM's Holden division, to study the construction of a bio-ethanol plant in Australia. In addition to cellulosic ethanol, DOE and GM recognize the need to provide bio-based diesel alternative fuels that can replace fossil diesel. A significant portion of the global transportation fuel market in places such as India and Europe relies on diesel and cannot benefit from cellulosic ethanol technologies. For these markets, jatropha-based biodiesel has great potential as an alternative fuel, especially in regions where national security concerns are heightened by reliance on imported oil.

In addition to India, other nations including China, the Philippines, several African countries, and the United States are conducting research programs in jatropha cultivation and oil extraction on eroded farmland and marginal land.

About jatropha plants
Jatropha is a hardy plant, resistant to drought and pests, and produces seeds containing 27-40% oil (average: 34.4%). The remaining press cake of jatropha seeds after oil extraction could also be considered for energy production.

Goldman Sachs recently cited Jatropha curcas as one of the best candidates for future biodiesel production. However, despite its abundance and use as an oil and reclamation plant, none of the Jatropha species have been properly domesticated and, as a result, its productivity is variable, and the long-term impact of its large-scale use on soil quality and the environment is unknown.

Currently the oil from Jatropha curcas seeds is used for making biodiesel fuel in Philippines and in Brazil, where it grows naturally and in plantations in the Southeast, and the North/Northeast Brazil. Likewise, jatropha oil is being promoted as an easily grown biofuel crop in hundreds of projects throughout India and other developing countries. The railway line between Mumbai and Delhi is planted with Jatropha and the train itself runs on 15-20% biodiesel. In Africa, cultivation of Jatropha is being promoted and it is grown successfully in countries such as Mali. In the Gran Chaco of Paraguay, where also a native variety (Jatropha matacensis) grows, studies have shown suitability of Jatropha cultivation and agro producers are starting to consider planting in the region.

Estimates of Jatropha seed yield vary widely, due to a lack of research data, the genetic diversity of the crop, the range of environments in which it is grown, and Jatropha's perennial life cycle. Seed yields under cultivation can range from 1,500 to 2,000 kilograms per hectare, corresponding to extractable oil yields of 540 to 680 liters per hectare (58 to 73 US gallons per acre). Time Magazine recently cited the potential for as much as 1,600 gallons of diesel fuel per acre per year.

Jatropha can also be intercropped with other cash crops such as coffee, sugar, fruits and vegetables.

Cultivation is uncomplicated. Jatropha curcas grows in tropical and subtropical regions. The plant can grow in wastelands and grows on almost any terrain, even on gravelly, sandy and saline soils. It can thrive in poor and stony soils, although new research suggests that the plant's ability to adapt to these poor soils is not as extensive as had been previously stated. Complete germination is achieved within 9 days.

On Dec. 30, 2008 Air New Zealand successfully completed a test flight from Auckland using a 50/50 mixture of jatropha oil -derived biofuel and Jet A1 in one of the four Rolls-Royce RB211 engines of a 747 jumbo jet. Air New Zealand announced plans to use the new fuel for 10% of its needs by 2013. Jatropha oil is significantly cheaper than crude oil, costing an estimated $43 a barrel or about one-third of the June 4, 2008 closing price of $122.30 for a barrel of crude oil. However, the falling cost of oil has changed the dynamic, with crude oil trading in the $34$48 range per barrel between December 2008, and February 2009.

On January 7, 2009 Continental Airlines successfully completed a test flight from Houston, Texas using a 50/50 mixture of algae/jatropha oil-derived biofuel and Jet A in one of the two CFM56 engines of a Boeing 737-800 New Generation jet. The two-hour test flight could mark another promising step for the airline industry to find cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuel.