The quest to turn inedible plant materials into biofuels got a global push this week with three news announcements – a massive jatropha farm planned in India, a switchgrass-to-ethanol plant being built in Tennessee and a Spanish study that made ethanol from olive pits.

In India, the Centre for Jatropha Promotion & Biodiesel, a company promoting the use of the inedible seeds of the jatropha plant for biofuel, announced a project that it said could yield up to 2 million metric tons (about 612 million gallons) of biodiesel per year starting in 2012 (via Cleantech Group).

The seeds would come from about 5 million jatropha plants the center hopes to grow in the Indian states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh at the rate of a million plants per year, the Cleantech Group reported.

The project follows a September announcement from India's Bharat Petroleum Corp. Ltd. that it will spend nearly $480 million to plant 1 million hectares (2.47 million acres) of jatropha (see Bharat Petroleum Plans $480M Biodiesel Investment).

Bharat Renewable Energy, a joint venture of the state-run oil refiner, jatropha grower Nandan Biomatrix Ltd., and construction company Shapoorji Pallonji Co. Ltd., plans to start producing about 1 million metric tons (about 306 million gallons) of biodiesel per year from the seeds produced by the plantation starting in 2015.

Jatropha seeds are seen as a potential future source of fuels from biodiesel to jet fuel (see Weed to Power New Zealand Jets, Florida Finds Destiny in Energy Farm).

India is making a big push for biofuels, with a national policy that targets blending all transportation fuels sold in the country with 20 percent biofuel by 2017.

Meanwhile, in the United States, switchgrass is coming up as another potential favorite for making cellulosic ethanol. Among other reasons, that's because switchgrass can grow on steep land unsuited for food crops and is perennial, meaning it doesn't need to be replanted each year (see Oklahoma Switches to Switchgrass and Ceres Reaps First Switchgrass, Sorghum Harvests).

This week, DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC and Genera Energy, a private company spun out of the University of Tennessee, said they've started building an ethanol factory that will use the hardy plant as a feedstock.

The factory will cost $40.7 million to build and is expected to produce as much as 250,000 gallons of ethanol by 2009, according to Innovation Valley Inc., a partnership of regional chambers of commerce and economic-development groups.

Not mentioned in the news release was Mascoma Corp., the Boston-based cellulosic ethanol developer that originally announced last year that it would partner with the University of Tennessee to build the first switchgrass-based ethanol plant in the United States. Back then, Mascoma and the university planned to have the plant completed in 2009 and producing up to 5 million gallons a year.

But in June, Mascoma's role in the project shifted from partner to technology provider after the startup failed to raise as much money as it had hoped for the project (see Mascoma to Play Smaller Role in Pilot Project). Then in July, Dupont Danisco took over as partner with the university on the project.

That Tennessee plant isn't the only cellulosic-ethanol project to scale back its expectations. Alicoc ancelled plans to build a cellulosic-ethanol plant in the United States earlier this year.

Several more corn-based ethanol plants also have been delayed or scrapped, however (see VeraSun Shutters Ethanol Plant, Poet Cancels Ethanol Plant, Ethanol Plant Gets Cancelled, Another Ethanol Plant Gets Cancelled and Ethanol Margins Suffer).

Meanwhile, as cellulosic ethanol factories that are planning to use a variety of plant materials struggle to get going, that list of new feedstocks just got a new addition from Spanish researchers – olive stones.

A team from the universities of Jaén and Granada in Spain have published a study that shows olive stones, or pits, can be turned into ethanol, reported Thursday.

The study, published in the Society of Chemical Industry's (SCI) Journal of Chemical Technology & Biotechnology, details a process whereby researchers used hot water and enzymes to break down the olive stones' cellulose into sugars that was then fermented into ethanol.

The researchers reported that they were able to get as much as 5.7 kilograms of ethanol from 100 kilograms of olive stones. Spain produces 4 million tons of olive stones every year. 

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