Biodiesel; Energy Solution for the Tropics


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by Professor Gunter Pauli1 and Dr. Ashok Khosla2
June 2005

Photovoltaics, hydrogen and wind generators represent technological breakthroughs that will undoubtedly contribute to any successful portfolio of renewable energies. However, the Third World village clearly needs other lower cost tropical solutions as well. Biodiesel, derived from tropical vegetable oils offers an unexplored but potentially dramatic source of energy for both traditional and modern applications in low income rural economies..

When the environmental research center Las Gaviotas, located in Colombia and directed by Paolo Lugari, inaugurated the first biodiesel production unit based on palm oil in 2004, the world media hardly noticed. Perhaps the approach was too simple; possibly it was not seen to be high tech enough to capture the attention of today's readers. Yet, this was the beginning of a true revolution.

Biodiesel from temperate zone crops such as rapeseed, sunflower, soy, and corn has been studied in detail over the years in Europe, Japan and North America. However, the number of liters of biodiesel that can be produced per hectare per year from these plants is tiny compared with the productivity of tropical plants. Unfortunately, there has been no comparable research effort on these biofuels. They are not of much interest to the markets of industrialized countries.

Nature, and nature's producers - plants - are far more productive in the tropics. Growing conditions vary very little through the year, while temperate regions, are characterized by four distinct seasons. Thus, for given soil and water conditions, the tropics produce much more plant material per hectare per year. Secondly, the extraction of oils from tropical seeds and fruits is much easier. Often a simple filtration process is all that is needed to run a diesel engine - compared with the need to esterify the oils of temperate zones and to remove glycerine to prevent freezing during the winter. The latter is a chemical process that involves hazardous substances such as methanol, lye and caustic potash. Third, tropical plants tend to produce vegetable oils whose combustion characteristics (viscosity, flash point, cetane number) are far superior to those of the diesel fuels used in the North, whether produced from plant oils or fossil fuels. Finally, tropical biodiesel is rich in oxygen. This dramatically improves the combustion and reduces by up to 85% the fine particulates, which give diesel a negative connotation.

And, of course, biodiesel is "carbon-neutral" - being a renewable fuel. Its burning does not contribute to climate change or sea-level rise, on the contrary since the annual harvest of fruits is the only part used for energy, the rest of the tree continues to fix carbon.

Gaviotas has a long-standing track record of innovating renewable energies. The largest solar water heating system for housing in the world with some 40,000 units has been installed in Bogot�. This system first appeared 25 years ago, and its ingenious design is solely based on the laws of physics, i.e. there are no mechanically moving parts, thus eliminating wear and tear. Gaviotas also introduced the windmill without a tail, the water pump with a fixed piston and a moving jacket, an efficient water hammer, and microturbines that operate with a water drop of only one meter.

However, the grand innovation of Gaviotas was the reconversion of the savannah on 8,000 hectares into the lush tropical rainforest it once used to be. The experiment was conducted in the region of Vichada, bordering with the Orinoco River on the Eastern side of Colombia. Over a period of 20 years, Lugari's team demonstrated that bringing about a total transformation of the ecology of a region can be quite simple when one co-opts nature and natural processes as the change agents. Thanks to the symbiotic relation between the Caribbean Pine (Pinus caribbea) and the mychorrizal fungus (Pisolithus tinctorius) the ecosystem quickly converted the savannah into a forest. At first the "monoculture" reconditioned the soil, hydrology and micro-climate. Subsequently it let the forces of natural regeneration create a forest of vast, primeval biodiversity. Among the hundreds of plant and animal species that have come back to what was a largely barren savannah, are potentially some 300 palm species which characterize the Amazon rainforest. By selective logging 500 of the original 1,100 pine species, approximately 100 palm trees appropriate for biodiesel production and some 250 other species are allowed to intensify.

Photo at right show the biodiesel team of engineers from Colorado, USA, and Las Gaviotas, Colombia, with Paolo Lugari at far right. Behind them are the tanks of the operational biodiesel plant in Bogota, Colombia.

The conversion of savannah into rainforest triggers a development scheme that is quite logical, though seldom implemented. The pine trees generate a resin that is locally processed to industrial colophone. The forest increases precipitation by 10%, and that generates drinking water. The thinning of the forest offers wood for fuel and for paper, thus logging trees becomes a precondition for stimulating biodiversity. Even though only one species was planted at first, there are now over 250 different plants species populating the newly reforested region. This permits the generation of jobs at the rate of one per 4 hectares of planting, and beyond any doubt is sequestering carbon dioxide like few have seen translated into practice.

Whereas the traditional monoculture practiced in palm plantations throughout Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia was considered optimal for maximizing profits from the production of edible oil or soaps, the mixed species plantation is far more appropriate for biodiesel, generating not only profits but also all-round economic growth. The multiple revenue streams generated by the various materials (some of them of very high market value) produced by the mixed forest, plus the drinking water thanks to increased precipitation and outstanding filtration through a healthy soil leads to sustainable livelihoods. These ecosystems once characterized by poverty and scarcity now produce large economies of "scope", i.e. of product mix, and in effect reduce the cost of each product simply by spreading the overhead costs. In a sense, the different products "cross-cash flow" each other, making individual products, such as biodiesel, less costly.

The biodiesel becomes even more competitive because of the elimination of transportation costs thanks to a system of local production and local consumption. Carrying diesel fuel to remote areas is costly. The supply is inconsistent, and the opportunity cost of interruptions is high. Diesel fuel purchases represent a large drain on the disposable income of farmers. In the case of the Colombian Orinoco, the landed cost of one gallon of diesel is about 17,500 pesos (5.5 Euro). The total cost of one gallon of biodiesel is no more than 4,500 pesos (1.30 Euro). Whereas the experience with biodiesel from tropical vegetable oils is limited in the world, the biochemistry is very compelling. Tropical oils are more productive but are also more combustible since they have a natural viscosity and a cetane number that is ideal. In addition, most tropical oils have a higher incidence of oxygen in the molecule that permits a more complete combustion and thus a cleaner exhaust than fossil diesel would ever permit.

This huge saving is not all. The impact on the local economy is even more dramatic. Pretty much the whole of the 5.5 Euro paid for diesel leaves the local economy, whereas most of the 1.30 Euro paid for locally produced biodiesel stays there, generating local jobs and multiplying itself several times through the other sectors of the community's economy. The net injection of cash into the rural village is 6.80 Euro per gallon of fuel3. This has a tremendous catalytic effect and represents a lever in the economy unimagined by conventional economists.

And then, the palm oil in the tropical forest often does not require any esterification. After a simple filtration without the need for any additives to change viscosity, and a minimal adaptation of the diesel engine like the elimination of some rubber bands, the crude can be used directly in the engine further cutting down costs -- to less than one Euro per gallon. Biodiesel can thus really fuel the development of a local economy.

Photos at left show how the Gaviotas tractor was modified to use crude palm seed biodiesel fuel.

Based on the experience in Las Gaviotas, which was supported by a US-based organization "Engineers without Borders" and the creative engineering of a young team lead by Martin Stenflo4, similar analyses have been made in India and Southern Africa. The Government of India had promoted the use of diesel pumps and generators at a time, only a few years ago, when heavily subsidized diesel was available at 8 Rupees per liter (Euro 0.20 or 0.80 per gallon. The price has since increased four-fold (Euro 3.60 per gallon). The country has millions of bore wells and pumps, a "sunk" capital investment that locks farmers and households into this technology and the fuel it needs. According to a recent household survey, a small rural village of only 45 families (250 people) spends US $4,500 year on diesel fuel alone. This money has to be paid in cash upfront and represents the largest single investment by this micro-community. When one realizes that India counts some 500,000 villages, most of them much bigger, the annual drain from the Indian rural economy due to its dependency on fossil diesel is at least 5 billion dollars.

It is quite obvious that the cost of diesel is on the rise. The world market prices for petroleum are characterized by an upward trend and the Indian government has little choice but to reduce the subsidies. This is why the appropriate technology NGO Development Alternatives has decided to introduce a biodiesel strategy for rural sustainable development. The case of Las Gaviotas offers the right inspiration. The dependency on fossil diesel not only drains the scarce cash in the hands of the farmer, the conversion to biodiesel will represent a welcome boost of the local economy, through local jobs and local plantations, while massively contributing to climate stabilization.

Small rural villages can easily convert 5-10 hectares of unused land space along farmland and close to the village into oil-bearing fruits. Countries like India, Colombia, South Africa or Brazil have a rich biodiversity, which does not require any non-native species to be introduced. It is a matter of studying the local biodiversity, selecting the best species so that biodiesel can be available forever (!) once its flow starts - which is as early as 36 months after it is planted. Martin Stenflo has calculated that the smallest biodiesel plant with a daily production capacity of up to 5,000 liters would only cost 10,000 US. The planting of oil bearing bushes and trees and the conversion of oil into biodiesel becomes a bankable proposal, even for a village with only 1,000 inhabitants.

The substitution of biodiesel for fossil fuels saves billions of tons of carbon dioxide. Exact calculations will need more field data, but a good guess would be that an average-sized village would save some 500 tons per year. The pilot scheme envisaged by Development Alternatives for 100 villages represents already 50,000 tons of savings per year, or 1 million tons over 20 years. The expansion of this program over a generation could reach 100,000 villages with the staggering potential of 100 billion tons of carbon emission savings in this century. The reversal of climate change has never seemed so well within reach and few innovations are expected to play such a dominant role. Seldom have we seen such a simple and quick solution.

When one starts playing with numbers the potential quickly turns gigantic. It now is possible to see a paradigm shift � starting by providing livelihoods to the poor. Las Gaviotas has calculated that its present expansion program recreating the rainforest, in the manner it has successfully demonstrated, recently approved by the Colombian government from 8,000 hectares to 6.3 million hectares to be implemented over the next 25-30 years has the potential to make the whole nation independent of fossil diesel. An estimated 500,000 hectares, or a mere 8% of the total regeneration of rainforest will be sufficient to substitute all imported diesel for the whole country. An estimated 2,000 small scale biodiesel refineries (at a cost of 10 to 25,000 dollars each) could be located throughout the region that was once considered "the middle of nowhere". It may have been a zone where palm oil for human consumption may not be competitive, but the generation of biodiesel certainly beats all alternatives, in combination with the regeneration of the tropical rainforest. This is not a case of energy crops competing with food, this is a case of regenerating a rainforest and providing sustainability to marginal communities.

Development Alternatives has a wide experience in bringing appropriate technologies to rural India. This approach to reducing the dependency on fossil diesel, and stimulating the local economy has benefits that go beyond the energy sector. As it processes vegetable oils, the local community will have access to glycerin, an important raw material for the production of soaps. If palm oil is the basis, then beta-carotene will become available as part of the nutrition, and the seed cake that is left over after pressing out the oil is an ideal feed for cattle. The quest for renewable energy sources for rural India (or Colombia and elsewhere in the tropics) is thus clearly connected with the need to provide food security, and job generation in the countryside.

This is clearly only the beginning and numerous additional breakthroughs in science and technology are around the corner especially when the applications are made available to communities that are today only surviving under stress and duress. Before long we expect the biodiesel production to rely on tropical enzymes, shedding the need for methanol, lye, caustic soda or caustic potash thus further reducing cost and its accessibility to the people who need it most.

The centre is no longer interested in change, and certainly not in fundamental change. It has become the job and even raison d'etre of bureaucracies (public or private) to resist any move that might threaten the status quo. Even as global oil production has demonstrably passed its all-time peak and climate change is a broadly accepted fact, the imperative of developing new, more permanent sources of energy finds our decision-makers in a state of total denial. It is clear that from now, innovation will have to come increasingly from the periphery - from small businesses, from NGOs and other civil society organizations and from scientists who have forsaken their mainstream science,

There are other roadblocks, too: science policies that willingly put billions into research on technologies that lend themselves to the military-urban-industrial mega-project mindset and not even hundreds of thousands into those that liberate human potential at the community level; the stranglehold of big corporations, particularly the energy majors, on the policy making processes of nations, big and small; financial institutions, including large international development banks, that are unwilling to put significant investments into alternative energy systems. Of all these, the pervasive and tenacious subsidies for fossil fuels are certainly among the biggest barriers. There is little doubt that if fossil fuels were to be marketed at unsubsidized prices, let alone at prices that cover even a part of their real (environmental, social and other) costs, the approach offered by organizations like Las Gaviotas and Development Alternatives would be quickly adopted, and on a large scale. The South African government has shown the way. It sees in these approaches a solid alternative to the acid rain causing coal fire power stations and a remarkable chance to bring energy to those we normally never reach -- the villagers in remote communities.


1 Gunter Pauli obtained an MBA from INSEAD (France) and has broad experience in translating technological innovations into viable projects. He is professor of Systems Design at the Science University of Torino (Italy)

2 Ashok Khosla has a PhD in experimental physics from Harvard University (USA) and has broad experience in designing and implementing appropriate technologies in villages in India. In 2004 he received the United Nations Sasakawa Environment Award.

3 If the outflow of the rural economy normally is 5.5 and this is now substituted with an inflow of 1.3, then the difference to the local economy is 6.8. This is a dramatic difference for the rural communities and shifts their societies from "incapable to respond to basic needs, to a path towards sustainable livelihoods."

4 The report of this team of engineers is a PDF entitled Synergy of the Americas; A Model for Biodiesel Production.

More links to Las Gaviotas.
May 2005 Trip to Las Gaviotas.
2005 Update about Las Gaviotas..

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