Thu, 10 Aug 2006

Still a long way before biofuel is on the market

Novan Iman Santosa, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Imagine a world where a farmer could extract oil from his own crops, like palm, soy or peanut oil, and fill up the tank of his tractor. There would be no need to stop by at the gas station for petroleum-based fuels.

The farmer would neither run out of fuel -- so long as he was growing sustainable crops -- nor rely on conventional fuel, the price of which is sensitive to issues ranging from production cuts to political upheaval.

Some people might say biofuel self-sufficiency is a utopian scheme, while others have demonstrated it can be done.

In general, biofuel is any fuel that comes from biomass -- or living organisms or their metabolic byproducts. It can come from plants or cow manure, for example.

Many people think the idea of developing biofuel is a new one, but in fact it has been around for more than a century.

It is safe to say the venture started 113 years ago when German inventor Robert Diesel -- the inventor of none other than the diesel engine -- used peanut oil to fire an engine he built in Aupsburg, Germany. The landmark date -- Aug. 10, 1893 -- has been declared International Biodiesel Day.

Another great automotive pioneer, Henry Ford, pondered the use of gasohol -- a mixture of gasoline and alcohol -- in 1916 for three years. Alas, the Prohibition era made it unlawful to produce alcohol.

Biodiesel and gasohol are the two most common forms of biofuel, especially regarding the internal combustion engines found under the hoods of cars.

The efforts of both Diesel and Ford to develop biofuel never really took off as there was an abundant supply of crude oil back then. Low fuel prices have also helped keep the spotlight off biofuel.

Nowadays, with declining oil production and ever increasing fuel consumption, the government has decided to promote biofuel to reduce soaring fuel subsidies.

Indonesia might consider itself lucky to have been blessed with a vast fertile ground for the various crops required to produce biofuel.

Some areas are suitable for corn or jathropa, while other regions are good for oil palm or sugarcane, tapioca and a host of other starch crops. If that is not enough, we also have vast waters suitable for the cultivation of algae, claimed to be the most efficient source of biodiesel.

Several parties -- state agencies and private companies -- promoted biodiesel, from both crude palm oil (CPO) and jathropa, and gasohol during the Indonesian International Motor Show, which ended late July.

On the other hand, however, we have to admit that oil palm is the most readily available source for biofuel both in biodiesel and pure plant oil (PPO) forms.

Indonesia is the second-largest producer of CPO in the world after Malaysia. But keep in mind that Malaysian companies also have their oil palm estates on Indonesian soil.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has offered Malaysian firms the opportunity to invest in biofuel, saying about six million hectares of land are available for the crops.

The fact that Indonesia already has refineries scattered across the country, as well as the distribution network, is expected to lure investment.

As for jathropa, its proponents say that it can be planted practically anywhere and it requires less attention than oil palm. But there have been only a few, if any, refineries extracting castor oil from jathropa seeds.

The production of gasohol is not getting off to such a solid start as the crops are not that widely cultivated here. Indonesia is still importing sugar as the domestic production of sugarcane is not sufficient to meet local demand, let alone to supply material for gasohol.

Farmers are also backing away from cultivating tapioca as the crop cannot provide a stable income. The price invariably drops during harvest time.

Efforts to produce gasohol would certainly help farmers, not only those planting sugarcane and tapioca but also other starch crops.

With so many options, we do not need a uniform program to cultivate only one or two crops. Farmers can choose what they want to grow, provided their soil is suitable.

All the government needs to do is to maintain the price of the crops to a profitable level for the farmers to harvest, for the refineries to buy and process, and for the end customers to buy.

However, since it is a long process, we can be sure that the price will not be much lower than that of petroleum-based fuels.

Currently only state oil and gas company Pertamina is offering a biodiesel blend -- B5 -- at five fuel stations across Jakarta. Foreign companies may want to see further regulations set in place before launching their own biofuel products.

Some companies also sell biofuel as an "additive", to be mixed manually by customers.

Why should customers buy biofuel?

Automakers have often said the government should offer tax incentives to promote eco-friendly fuels.

Vehicles able to run on biofuel may still need some modifications to avoid mishaps. Gasohol, for example, is corrosive and some piping may need to be stainless steel on the inside. Biodiesel can cause rubber hoses to wear out earlier and it attracts water.

Several carmakers have announced that some of their models can run on biofuel, while others are still studying biofuel.

Reducing tax, however, will meet strong opposition from bureaucrats at the Finance Ministry, whose main duty is to fill up the state coffers. Unless we can provide them with figures showing a reduced need for petroleum-based fuels, thus reducing subsidies, which would mean reducing the current deficit.

Although biofuel pioneers were also automotive pioneers, this does not mean biofuel is only of interest to private car owners. Operators of buses, ships and trains may also find it an interesting alternative.

State power firm PT PLN should also give it a try, rather than using "dirty" coal to generate power.

The writer is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post and can be contacted at