If you've ever tried making biodiesel commercially you'll know that the biggest cost is by far the feedstock. This has lead to a great deal of research into more efficient alternatives to the traditional feedstocks of canola oil and soybean oil. A promising biodiesel feedstock plant being promoted in Africa, India, China and South East Asia is Jatropha Curcas which is common in hot climates and can grow in wastelands. Jatropha is already known for its huge yields; more than four times as much fuel per hectare as soybean, and more than ten times that of corn.

Jatropha is actually a wild plant though, it has never been commercially cultivated in the past so very little is known about its ideal planting conditions - how close to plant the seedlings, how often to irrigate, whether pruning is beneficial, etc. Farmer education is an important step in establishing Jatropha as a new commercial crop in these countries. Standard agronomy techniques have massively increased the yields of crops like canola in the last twenty years and it is expected that these same techniques will be able to lift Jatropha yields far above their wild results. In India, basic research is being undertaken by several groups including the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), which has launched a 10-year, $9.4 million project to research issues involved in taking Jatropha from growing the seed to producing biodiesel.

The first crops of Jatropha planted by TERI in a wasteland, have now flowered for the first time. Previously, TERI has investigated different mycorrhiza microorganisms, that improve the ability of many plants to grow in poor soil. The most promising of these fungi has seen Jatropha yields increase by 15 percent when used.

Genetically modifying Jatropha could be a short cut to higher yields in less time and TERI have a team of 20 microbiologists, molecular biologists, and field breeders who are looking for particular genes in Jatropha that can be manipulated to enhance oil percentages. The expectation is that it will be 18 months before the correct genes can be isolated and that modified plants will be in cultivation by 2012. Unlike most biodiesel feedstocks, Jatropha is a non-edible crop.

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[Source: MIT Technology Review via TreeHugger]

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