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Biofuel: Answer to Tomorrow’s Energy Needs in Southeast Asia

Monday, August 15th, 2011

With increased industrialization and the launch of innumerable transportation vehicles, newer sources of energy are in great demand to fuel world economic growth. With conventional sources of energy depleting fast, alternative non-conventional sources of energy are being sought.

Natural sources of energy which are inexhaustible like solar, wind, and tidal energy are being tapped with huge projects being launched every day. However, the high setup costs are prohibitive in most countries. Thus, alternative energy sources which are plentifully available as well as easy to produce are progressively required.

Biofuels are considered one such alternative to feed fuel-hungry industries and vehicles. Biofuels are produced either from living organisms or from metabolic byproducts, which can be organic or waste food products. Fuels derived from at least 80 percent renewable materials are considered biofuels. Indirectly, they are a solar energy source, as such materials are a by-product of photosynthesis.

According to Singapore-based renewables analyst Per Dahlen, Southeast Asia has the potential to produce 14 million barrels of renewable biofuels per day in environmentally and socially responsible methods. This is expected to eliminate the need to import crude oil, the cost of which is becoming more dear by the day. Biofuels will also form a green sustainable energy source in demand among the increasingly environmentally-conscious population.

“Located in the tropics with an abundance of available land, water, and cheap labor, it should be feasible to turn this region into a biofuel-producing powerhouse,” Dahlen added.

The developments in biotechnology have enabled the engineering of microbes to break up biomass into biofuels, as well as bio-chemicals and bio-plastics, in green and economically viable ways. Genetically modified organisms may raise controversies in the food sector, but in biofuels, they should be welcome.

A large proportion of the total agricultural output of Southeast Asia comes from palm, sugar cane, and rice. About 25-30 percent of the harvest becomes the end-product and a majority of the yield is discarded in the field. The biomass left in the fields is burnt and after processing, the leftover biomass is used to generate steam or electricity.

But the revenue potential of this biomass is immense if tapped for biofuel production. A huge processing plant may be set up to produce biofuel which will pay back its investment value within three to four years, and in the process reduce dependency on expensive crude oil.

With large tropical areas, Asia is wellsuited for biomass cultivation, with yields reaching several hundred tons per hectare of biomass from cassava and sweet sorghum which give a yield in only a few months. The use of biotechnology and other recent agricultural technologies further help boost the yield. One ton of biomass can give rise to 30 kilograms of biofuel using optimized conversion techniques.

Asian biofuel production rates are expected to reach new heights in 2011 with India and China leading the way. The scientific and technological developments undertaken in Asian labs are set to boost biofuel production, as with algal biofuels. Jet biofuel will be adopted by the global aviation industry, leading to a surge in jatropha and camellina production.

Advanced biofuel technology promotes the use of biodiesel-powered vehicles as it offers a clean green alternative. Biodiesel can be produced from cooking oil, jatropha, and some edible virgin vegetable oils through the esterification and trans-esterification biodiesel processes.

International companies like Nestlé are looking at Singapore and other Asian destinations for biodiesel production, as demand is greater there. The Bioenergy International Asia Expo and Conference, which took place in Malaysia, exposed the immense potential in the region, which was highlighted by presentations given by representatives from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore.

In the Philippines, coconut-based biodiesel is encouraged as it is more productive than rapeseed and soyabean and it offers a better fuel economy. Malaysian companies also manufacture biodiesel production equipment for export to other Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries.

Singapore companies sell biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil directly to their customers, including transport companies, hotels, and retail chains. Indonesia has 22 biodiesel producers, with some of them producing ethanol.

Studies reveal that by using modern technologies, the Asian region can increase biofuel production easily and reduce dependency on oil imports. Large areas available in the region for energy crop and food crop cultivation further add to the advantages. Also, the cultivation of dedicated energy crops can give rise to employment potential for the region’s economy. Being a large consumer and producer of biofuels is sure to benefit the Asian region in the long run.

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