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 Mahamad Rodzi Abdul Ghani
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 The Star
 Switching to green fuels

12/09/06 (The Star)  -  With oil prices rising, Asia is turning to plants for fuel, writes MICHAEL CASEY.

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 39.2 million ha of land where jatropha can be grown, hoping it will replace 20% 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.

Sugar from sugar cane is now distilled into ethanol, a renewable fuel.
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 is not 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 hectares of rain forest in 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 2% to 20%, you would have to direct so much of that agriculture from food to fuel that there would be real competition between the two,’’ he said. ”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% of current fuel usage in most of Asia, and experts say their large-scale use is years if not decades away.

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

Ethanol produces 13% 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%.

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 – gasoline with 10% ethanol – and it’s slightly cheaper than regular gas.

Thailand also grants the sugar industry tax breaks to produce ethanol and is following the United States 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 Fiji Electricity Authority plans to switch entirely to renewable energy by 2011 while Unelco Vanuatu runs some generators on 5% coconut oil. 

India wants to increase its use of renewable energy from the current 5% to 25% 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 5% ethanol, and the government aims to increase that to 20% 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 7% currently to 15% by 2020.

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 licenses for plants to produce biodiesel for export, mostly to the European Union, which has mandated that all fuels should contain 5.75% biofuels by 2010.

BP is spending US$9.4mil (RM35.7mil) 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 2% of oil use by 2010 with ethanol. British-based D1 Oils is investing up to US$20mil (RM76mil) 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 5% 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. It appears to have advantages in Asia over competitors like palm oil, since it can be grown almost anywhere, meaning it will not compete with food crops and so far has not appeared to threaten rain forest and other environmentally-sensitive areas. – AP

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