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2009 November 30

Cars could soon be running on a biofuel produced from a common legume tree

A team of experts at the University of Queensland (UQ) has been studying 20,000 Pongamia pinnata (Indian beech) trees lining Brisbane's streets as a green and cost-effective alternative to dwindling fossil fuels.

Pongamia trumped all other biofuels, including sugarcane and sorghum, the UQ's head legume researcher Professor Peter Gresshoff told energy experts at a national climate change symposium in Brisbane on Tuesday.

While food-for-fuel is hotly debated, Pongamia seed - native to several Asian countries, including India and commonly found across Australia - is not a major food source. Its biggest advantage is its hardiness.

"It's deep rooted and drought tolerant. It's also salt tolerant, which means it can survive in slightly salty artesian water," Prof Gresshoff, director of UQ's ARC centre of excellence into legume research, said.

"This means it can grow on marginal land and does not have to compete with food crops." He said Pongamia was a "high cropper", producing lots of seeds that contain about 40 per cent oil. A planting of up to 500 trees per hectare could produce 5,500 litres of fuel.

He said Origin Energy had started a $5.7 million plantation project but he believed more research was needed. "There is a product now. It's an effective biofuel but I believe there needs to be three to five years of intense research into understanding the genetic nature (of the tree) to breed the best plants for huge plantations," he said.

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