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GM investing in Mascoma, ramps up biofuel interests


General Motors (GM), which has committed to making half its cars ethanol-compatible by 2012, accelerated its alternative fuel interests on Thursday by investing in its second biofuel program since the beginning of the year.

GM said it was putting an unspecified amount of money into a New Hampshire-based company, Mascoma, which is working on turning papermill waste, corn stalks, wood chips and switchgrass into fuel.

In January, the world’s largest automotive maker unveiled plans to buy a stake in biofuel company Coskata Inc, a pioneer in efforts to convert waste into cheap ethanol.

Neither company uses grains such as corn to produce ethanol.

The US government has backed a huge increase in the production of corn and other grains for ethanol, a move that has been blamed for contributing to soaring food prices.

Mascoma says it is developing a “new generation of microbes” or bacteria which can break down the cellulose fibers that have been the major hurdle in using wood, straw, paper pulp and other agricultural waste products such as cornstalks for fuel.

It has also patented a process that uses heat and mechanical action to treat the cellulose in an economical manner.

“Processing ethanol from cellulosic biomass minimizes the environmental impact of fuel ethanol production,” Mascoma said on its Web site.

Other bacteria that it has developed convert sugars to ethanol.

In a statement from the two companies, GM president Fritz Henderson said the technologies of Mascoma and Coskata “represent what we see as the best in the cellulosic ethanol future and cover the spectrum in science and commercialization.”

“Demonstrating the viability of sustainable non-grain based ethanol is critical to developing the infrastructure to support the flex-fuel vehicle market,” he said.

GM head Rick Wagoner in January unveiled plans to bring 16 new hybrid models on the market within four years.

In the hybrid battle, GM has focused on developing technology for cars with batteries that can be recharged from regular electric sockets.

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