Plant power can solve fuel problem

A car fuelled by plant oil, which backers hope will reduce Indonesia's spending on subsidising fuel for the population, has completed a 3,200 km trip across the country.

    The plant-oil powered Mistsubishi Strada completed a 3,200 km trip

    The vehicle fuelled with oil from the jatropha plant travelled from Atambua in West Timor to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

    Tanto Bangun, editor of Indonesia's National Geographic magazine, one of the major sponsors of the trip, said he was not sure that the Mitsubishi Strada would survive the journey across the freezing volcanic peaks of Flores and Sumbawa islands, and the sweltering Javanese countryside.

    The trip was the brainchild of Bangun and Robert Manurung, head of the biotechnology research centre at the Bandung Institute of Technology.
    Bangun said; "When I met Robert Manurung, he was talking about how he is concerned about the lack of research on alternative energy [in Indonesia] ... Innovation is not really appreciated because many industries that are related to fossil fuels don't like this development."
    "So I challenged him: Can we make a journey on pure jatropha oil?"

    Jatropha plant

    "Maybe this is the world's first pure biodiesel-run car. Definitely, it's Indonesia's first"

    Head of the biotechnology research centre at the Bandung Institute of Technology

    Manurung, who has spent several years looking into refining oil from the bushy jatropha plant and developing a converter to allow the oil to withstand extremes of temperature, has high hopes for the innovative car.

    "Maybe this is the world's first pure biodiesel-run car. Definitely, it's Indonesia's first," he said.

    Indonesia is trying to reduce the cost of providing subsidised fuel to the population, which has risen to an estimated 62.4 trillion rupiah ($6.86 billion) this year, despite several cuts to subsidies by the cash-strapped government.

    Although rich in fossil fuels, Indonesia realises it does not have an endless supply, says Al Hilal Hamdi, who was appointed to head a government team examining biofuel development this year.

    Energy security

    "The government would like to have more energy security because we have limited fossil fuels. We have only 23 to 25 years of oil, 60 years of gas, and 150 years of coal," says Hamdi.
    "Biofuel will secure our energy sources," he added.

    Professor Robert Manurung with
    a sample of jatropha oil

    Jakarta plans to make at least five million hectares (12 million acres) of former forest land available for palm oil, jatropha, sugarcane and cassava plantations in a bid to create jobs for up to three million people, Hamdi said.

    The government hopes that biofuels will supply 10 per cent of Indonesia's transport and electricity fuel needs by 2010.

    Environmentalists have applauded Jakarta's plans for alternative energy sources but warned that palm oil was not necessarily a green answer to Indonesia's fuel crisis.

    "If the government really wants to press for biofuel, please use idle land, don't convert natural forest," urged Elfian Effendi from Greenomics.
    Palm oil

    Palm oil, which requires fertile land, uses valuable food-producing land, but jatropha, said Manurung, can grow on dry wasteland. Jatropha is ideal for the drought-prone regions of eastern Indonesia which struggle to grow other crops, and establishing a jatropha plantation costs just a tenth of setting up a palm oil plantation.

    Although demand for biofuels is likely to soar, vegetable oils are not about to replace petrol as Indonesia's, or the world's, major fuel source, warns David Chang, a researcher from UOBKay Hian Securities.
    Palm oil production from Malaysia and Indonesia, which together supply 90 per cent of global palm oil, provides the equivalent of only about three per cent of the current demand for fossil fuels. And Indonesia, which currently supplies half of the world’s crude palm oil, will struggle to supply even the food industry over the coming years, he said.



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