General Motors Co. Tuesday announced a five-year partnership with the United States Department of Energy 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 — 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. 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.