Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Biofuel Debate (3rd Part)

Dear readers, here I am writing my final article on the series of Biofuel. Unfortunately interest in Biofuel among public, industry and even government is at the lowest now simply because crude petroleum is trading around USD 40 per barrel. Besides that, people are now more worried about retaining their job from retrenchment than to worry about global warming and green energy. If the petrol price trades at this rate, biofuel players will never be able to compete with oil producers that have well established distribution line and mass produces oil at cost below USD 25 per barrel. The following news write up explains the issue, click here for the news.

Despite the lack of interest in biofuel, we should not stop researching in the quest for an alternative fuel. In fact this will be indeed the best time as we can take on research on a slow, steady pace and not rush into taking a wrong approach. In my last post, I did mention that palm biodiesel may not be the best option despite having the best yield per hectare compared to other oil producing crops due to food fuel competition.

As I was in the midst of completing this article, I came across two interesting article published on the same day. First article appears to warn investors and plantation companies on the decreasing profit margin due to increasing global stock and decreasing palm oil price. The second article is an announcement by our government to introduce Palm Biodiesel at pumps in January 2010. According to the minister, five percent of Malaysia’s total consumption of 10million tones of diesel will be replaced by palm biodiesel. I believe this announcement is made on a basis that the current excessive stock can be diverted for biodiesel production in order to boost faltering palm oil prices. On the other hand, from the first article we can see that local planters have put on hold or lowered their fertilizer application to choke production by third quarter. I don’t have much knowledge in economy but allow me to assume a probable situation by third quarter next year. Palm oil production hits the lowest, demand increases due to conversion of palm biodiesel and CPO price goes up (which of cause will benefit the planter). It makes me wonder how the government is planning to market palm biodiesel alongside with petroleum diesel if the petroleum price remains low as it is now. Will this also affect our cooking oil price? This is definitely a game with many uncertain factors to fit in a perfect sustainable balance to benefit the public, planters and the industry players at same time.

I personally believe that the best source for biofuel should have these criteria. First and foremost, biofuel should not be produced from source that is used to produce food. Producing fuel from corn and rapeseed has its own disadvantages as they are both used for food and feed. Ideally if a plant is going to be used to produce biodiesel, it should grow with minimal input (fertilizers and mechanical effort) from growers. If too much input goes into producing biofuel, we actually end up using more energy in production than the total energy available for end user.

One of the plants that recently stole the limelight from palm biodiesel is jatropha. Jatropha fruit is not edible, thus does not compete with food. It grows on marginalized land with less water requirement which is an important factor in saving fertile land for other food crops. In fact, government has taken the right initiate by directing MPOB to study on Jatropha biodiesel production and LGM to look into identifying the best clones as the genetic makeup of jatropha is very similar to rubber tree. With right synergetic efforts from MPOB and LGM, we can predict to have in the near future a golden crop that has the potential to satisfy our thirst for fuel. One major problem with Jatropha lies in harvesting the fruits which mature at different times and is labour intensive. But with the right research direction and the use of technology such as MAS and GM technology, high yielding superior clones can be produced which can offset the high cost of harvesting.

Another biofuel source worth looking at is producing biofuel from algae. It makes a lot of sense producing biofuel from algae for few reasons. Firstly it requires minimal input to grow and it grows at a very high rate with sufficient sunlight and water (doesn’t require fresh water, can survive with seawater). Secondly, algae produce high content of biofuel in terms of dry weight ratio as well as land use. Third and most interesting fact is that it is possible to feed CO2 into the production lines which can be obtained from factory byproduct (carbon credit offset). Practically, algae can be grown in large tubes filled with waste water and CO2 with free sunlight in a large field. Not only producing algae can be cheaper, it can reduce greenhouse gasses and sell carbon credits. If these methods can be perfected, algae are definitely a good source for biofuel. An interesting read to complement algae biofuel use, click here.

Besides Jatropha and algae, biofuel can also be produced from used cooking oil, food waste (fats and grease), cellulosic ethanol and many other bio-source that contains high oil. I was even told by a friend that in some parts of the world, liposuction fats from cosmetic clinics are being collected to produce biofuel. I am not sure how true this is, but theoretically it is possible. On a lighter note, let’s not limit our imaginations in quest for the perfect alternative fuel for this hungry world.

p.s. These are my personal views based on my observation. I may be wrong with the economics of palm biodiesel. Please comment your views if you find my article not accurate.

By Joel William


Other Side said...

nice article.. http://sidethinkings.blogspot.com/

debatepopular said...

Very good biofuel alternatives, I would like to know the future risk of producing algae or other plant you named. I find it interesting to reciclaciĆ³n campaigns to produce biofuels and trade it for anything else.