Has Spring Come for Biodiesel?

by Dan Schafer

Last week, 15 kilometres from Chiangmai, Thailand, I drove down a small lane past a temple and got directions to the OBD (equivalent to township or municipal government office). There in front of the OBD, under a corrugated roof, Khun Chuan manages a small, co-operative-style biodiesel station that produces and distributes 150 litres of biodiesel per day. He is not a scientist. But with five days of training at Chiang Mai University and a 150,000 Baht (about USD 4,300) investment in CMU’s biodiesel making equipment, he has become very confident and effective at providing his colleagues with a more economical fuel than they can buy at petrol stations. He would have filled my tank for me but unfortunately, according to the owners manual, our Honda Accord takes only premium petrol (gasoline). It is such a nice product that I couldn’t resist asking him for a sample to take home. It has no petroleum sort of smell. It is clear amber coloured. It is so non toxic that you could drink it. (But don’t. It’s not that good!) It burns much cleaner than petroleum diesel. And, if you count its net carbon dioxide release, it is 75% less than petroleum diesel—net, in the sense of counting the carbon dioxide the plant it came from consumed as well. And besides that, it lubricates the engine better than petroleum diesel.

How did we get here? How did we get to a situation where some very unsophisticated rural people in a third world country could have their own biodiesel plant and beat the large petroleum companies by making, in many ways a nicer product more cheaply? “It’s the economy, stupid.” Although time is needed for technology to mature, it is really the market that determines whether an idea will fly. In 1893 already, when Rudolf Diesel for whom diesel engine is named, created his first engine, it ran on peanut oil. And a large part of his vision was that small local people could use locally available fuels to do jobs dominated by big business using inefficient equipment like the steam engine. And earlier than that the process of changing a very viscous material like vegetable oil into an easy flowing fuel, transesterification, had been successfully done in 1853. But in the 1920’s the oil companies were able to hijack Diesel’s vision. How? There was nothing criminal about it. Petroleum diesel was far cheaper to produce and the “bio” idea was forced to go dormant. Now projects like Chuan’s are like the first green shoots of spring finding their way up through the snow, because economics have changed. World politics, forging demand for energy from developing countries, all the factors that sent the price of petroleum into the stratosphere, combined to melt the snow for ideas like biodiesel.

In fact Khun Chuan and his colleagues are not primarily concerned about solving any global energy crisis or tackling global warning or even reducing dependence on petroleum producing countries. Their enthusiasm mainly is the ability to fill their diesel pickup truck tanks and still have some Baht left to pay their kids’ school expenses. They also have some satisfaction from the fact their pickups produce less smoke than when they bought the higher priced petroleum product.

Professor Anucha at the faculty of engineering at CMU had a more altruistic goal. Anucha Promwungkwa Ph.D., was the easy to chat with professor who told me how to find Khun Chuan’s OBD biodiesel facility. Along with most other educated people, when the price of petroleum products started hitting prices 50% - 60% higher than they had seen before, he recognised the benefit alternative fuels could have. But his research started further back. CMU had started its research into making biodiesel in the year 2000. But later as they researched the availability of used cooking oil, Professor Anucha discovered a very concerning fact: There already existed a very extensive network for the collection of used cooking oil. Why? Because there was a good market for it in both animal feed and recycled oil for resale as a cheap substitute for new cooking oil. Either way the carcinogenic FFA (free fatty acids) from the used oil were making their way back into the food unsuspecting people were buying and eating. He didn’t know if his attempts to disrupt that market could be dangerous to his own health. Some unscrupulous people making money from the recycling business might find his efforts inconvenient. But he now had another urgency to get the CMU biodiesel project underway. Here again, it was the economy that saved his vision. As the world price of oil went up, selling the used cooking oil for biodiesel suddenly became more profitable than reusing it for food products. And just as suddenly the unsavoury market for lethal recycled oil disappeared.

Thailand is in many ways an ideal country for the development of biodiesel. In the first place it never gets cold, which short-circuits the inherent problem of biodiesel gelling in cold weather. In the second place, due to decades-old vehicle tax rates Thailand has become one of the biggest markets in the world—relative to its size—for pickup trucks. And most of those are diesel since manufacturers have responded to the market for cheap-to-operate vehicles—both because diesel is more efficient and because its price has been subsidised. Thirdly, Thailand gets plenty of sunshine—the energy source for photosynthesis by which plants convert carbon dioxide to solid matter from which we get fuel. Currently in Thailand the most viable agricultural product for biodiesel is palm oil. Palm oil trees, according to Wikipedia, can produce up to 5,000 kilograms of oil from one hectare. Compare that with soybeans, which can produce 375 kg per hectare (345 lbs. per acre). Fourthly, Thai people are quite open to change if an issue is spelled out to them clearly—witness their response to the message of preventing HIV infection in the early 1990’s.

In a way then Thailand can be a pretty good test of whether spring has really come for biodiesel. Though most of the world welcomes a leveling out of petroleum prices, it is actually a kind of cold wind for the biodiesel idea. Where many of the richer northern countries have been able to, in a way, “green house” their bio and alternative energy projects by taxes and subsidies, Thailand does not have the developed-country sort of resources to sustain that approach. Though the government is making attempts to nurture biodiesel by laws and incentives it essentially is going to come down to what happens in the market place and how fast technology can go. Improved technology can and will make production of biodiesel more efficient and competitive. If Thailand can win on this one, then it won’t be long before spring will come to the rest of the world as well.

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