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 Mahamad Rodzi Abdul Ghani
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 Asia turning to plants for fuel

1/5/06  FARIDABAD (India): Indians know better than to eat the plum-sized fruit of the wild jatropha bush. It’s poisonous enough to kill.

But with oil prices surging, the lowly jatropha is experiencing a renaissance of sorts — as a potential source for fuel for trucks and power stations. The Government has identified 39.2ha land where jatropha can be grown, hoping it will replace 20 per cent of diesel consumption in five years.

“We have found that we can produce biodiesel from it. If we can keep the price down, the future looks bright,” says R.K. Malhotra, who oversees the Indian Oil Corp’s research centre that is running tests on the oil.

India isn’t alone. All across Asia, governments are searching for crops that can help them offset a dependence on imported oil that can only skyrocket as their economies soar. Palm oil and sugar cane are the dominant crops in the region, but everything from coconuts to castor oil to cow dung is being tested for fossil-fuel alternatives such as ethanol and biodiesel.

Most experts also believe that, using current technologies, there isn’t enough land to make a serious dent in oil consumption. Some scientists say production will consume more conventional energy than it will save, and environmentalists came out this month against plans by Indonesia to convert millions of acres of rain forest on the island of Borneo into palm oil plantations.

Georgia Tech Professor Arthur Ragauskas, who co-authored a study of biofuels published in Science magazine, sees other potential pitfalls.

“One criticism of biofuels is that if you want to go from two per cent to 20 per cent, you would have to direct so much of that agriculture from food to fuel that there would be real competition between the two,” he told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

“Even worse, if we have a famine in part of the world, we would have to make a decision as a society between food or fuel.”

For now, alternative fuels are less than 1 per cent of current fuel usage in most of Asia, and experts say their large-scale use is years if not decades away.

Still, “Every country in Asia is trying to commercialise and put up legislation on biofuels,” said Conrado Heruela, a renewable energy specialist with the UN Food and Agriculture Agency.

“Right now, the target is not that big but it will be very significant in the long term,” he said.

Ethanol, distilled mostly from corn in the US and from sugar in Brazil and Asia, is mixed with petrol. Biodiesel comes mostly from rapeseed in Europe, vegetable oil in the US and palm oil, coconut oil and jatropha in Asia, and is mixed with diesel.

Ethanol produces 13 per cent less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, a study published recently in Science magazine found, while the US Department of Agriculture says biodiesel can reduce carbon emissions by 78 per cent.

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej has a car that runs on palm oil and has been touting the substitute fuel to his nation for more than 20 years. Today, hundreds of gas stations in the capital, Bangkok, sell gasohol — petrol with 10 per cent ethanol — and it’s slightly cheaper than regular gas.

Thailand also grants the sugar industry tax breaks to produce ethanol and is following the US in a plan to replace the toxic fuel additive MTBE with ethanol. Still, supply is not matching demand.

On some Pacific islands, whose isolation makes oil imports more costly and vulnerable to market shifts, power companies are looking for other sources.

“The use of alternative fuels is very much the topic of the moment among the small utilities in the Pacific,” said Jean Chaniel, the general manager of Unelco Vanuatu, whose company runs some generators on five per cent coconut oil.

The Fiji Electricity Authority plans to switch entirely to renewable energy by 2011.

India says it wants to increase its use of renewable energy from the current five per cent to 25 per cent by 2030. Much of this will come from nuclear plants, but it is also examining wind power and other methods including jatropha.

About half of India drives on petrol with five per cent ethanol, and the Government aims to increase that to 20 per cent in the next decade.

In China, the Government is promoting ethanol and is financing nuclear, hydroelectric and solar power, aiming to increase renewable energy sources from seven per cent currently to 15 per cent by 2020.

High oil prices and rising car ownership mean “there is great market potential to develop renewable vehicle fuel,” China’s National Development and Reform Commission said in a statement. “Introducing ethanol fuel is good to improve the environment, stabilise grain production, and promote sustainable economic development.”

Other countries are using the interest in biofuels to boost their farming sector.

Malaysia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, has issued 10 licences for plants to produce biodiesel for export, mostly to the European Union, which has mandated that all fuels should contain 5.75 per cent biofuels by 2010.

Decatur, Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland last year announced plans to build a US$29 million (US$1 = RM3.63) biodiesel facility in Singapore.

BP is spending US$9.4 million to study jatropha in India and in March announced it would produce 110 million litres of ethanol a year by 2007 in Australia, which aims to substitute two per cent of oil use by 2010 with ethanol.

British-based D1 Oils is investing up to US$20 million mostly in jatropha in India, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Indian Government says it has successfully run dozens of trucks and buses on jatropha-based biodiesel and 7.4 million ha of jatropha saplings are growing along the country’s railroad tracks. It intends to start mixing five per cent or 2.34 metric tonnes of jatropha into diesel by 2007, which would require planting 2.4 million ha of jatropha.

Seeds from the jatropha fruit are crushed to produce a yellowish oil that is refined and then mixed with diesel. Yields remain open to debate, with the Indian Government saying they could be up to 3.6 metric tonnes of biodiesel per acre of jatropha — or just a fifth of that — depending on how successfully farmers cultivate it.

It appears to have advantages in Asia over competitors like palm oil, since it can be grown almost anywhere, meaning it won’t compete with food crops and so far has not appeared to threaten rain forest and other environmentally sensitive areas.

Chris Chatterton, chief executive officer of D1 Oils South-East Asia, sees jatropha as “a major competitor with palm oil”. And a non-edible source is an advantage over rapeseed or sunflower oil, he says, because “You are not taking land that would otherwise be used for food.... It is a bit bourgeois to take edible biodiesel so Europeans can drive around in their Mercedes.” — AP

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