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SAGA OF THE BIOFUEL: THE PHILIPPINE EXPERIENCE

December 21, 2008

SAGA OF THE BIOFUEL: THE PHILIPPINE EXPERIENCE

By Rudy A. Fernandez
30-May-2007 The Philippine STAR

Did you know that as early as the 1930s ethyl alcohol (ethanol) has been used as a motor fuel in the Philippines?   Studies on the use of ethanol as fuel for cars were conducted by engineers of the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture (UPCA) led by Dr. Anastacio Teodoro.

The 1929 De Sotto de Luxe Sedan used as a model ran for more than 50,000 kilometers on alcohol fuels for five years, it was reported by Dr. Fernando A. Bernardo, former dean of UPCA, who retired in 1998 as deputy director general of the Los Baños-based International Rice Research Institute.

Dr. Bernardo, also a former Education deputy minister and former president of the Visayas State College of Agriculture (VISCA, now Leyte State University), has been devoting his time writing books covering important facets of Philippine life.

His latest book-writing project, titled “Centennial Review: 100 Great Moments in UPLB’s History” (UPLB stands for UP Los Baños, which began as UPCA), reported, among other things, UPCA-generated technologies in the 1930s.

In his research for this portion of the book, Bernardo noted, “Initially, gasanol was used, which was a mixture of 50 percent alcohol, 45 percent gasoline, and 5 percent sulphuric other. The car ran at a maximum mileage of 15.8 miles/gallon.”

“With 10 percent alcohol, the car covered 17.4 denatured 193o proof ethyl alcohol mixed with gasoline exceeded the efficiency of pure gasoline by 0.7 to 16 percent.”

“Ethanol,” points out a brochure produced by the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Agricultural Research (DA-BAR), “is a clean-burning high octane alcohol that is produced from crops like corn and sugarcane. A percentage of ethanol is combined with unleaded gasoline for fuel. This makes for lower fuel cost, increased fuel octane rating, and decreased harmful emissions.”

Bioethanol, on the other hand, is a blending of ethanol and gasoline to produce an alternative fuel called gasohol.

Scientific literature states that ethanol is extensively used as a preservative, disinfectant, solvent, and fuel and gasoline additive. Ethanol provides high-quality, low-cost octane booster for exceptional engine performance.

Records have it that ethanol has actually been used in cars since Henry Ford designed his 1908 Model T to operate on alcohol. Long stretches have been covered on ethanol-blended fuel since the 1980s.

The commonly used combinations of ethanol-gasoline are called E10 (10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline) and E85 (85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline).

E10 has long been in popular use in countries such as the United States, Brazil, China, and India.

In fact, one account states that several teams in international racing competitions use ethanol because of its high octane and excellent performance. About 30 percent of all automotive fuels sold in the US today are ethanol-blended.

Are ethanol-blended fuels harmful to car engines?

This is a misconception, according to those in the know. In reality, today’s cars are built to be compatible with ethanol-blended fuels and are warranted for its use.

When ethanol was introduced in the early 1900s, some cars experienced deterioration of some elastomers (rubber-like parts) and metal in fuel system components. But vehicle manufacturers immediately upgraded these components so that they are now compatible with ethanol fuels.

Best of all, since it is a reasonable fuel produced from plants, unlike petroleum-based fossil fuels that have a limited supply and are the major contributor of carbon dioxide emissions, ethanol is environment-friendly.

It has been found that ethanol is 35 percent oxygen, and adding oxygen to fuel results in more complete fuel combustion, thus reducing harmful tailpipe emissions. Ethanol displaces the use of toxic gasoline components such as benzene, which is a carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).

Moreover, it is non toxic, water-soluble, and quickly biodegradable.

During the oil crisis in the 1970s following the Middle East war, when prices of fossil-based oil consistently began going up, the Philippines again considered biofuels sourced from such crops as sugarcane, corn, cassava, and others.

But nothing or not much happened as the country continued to depend on foreign-sourced fuel.

Records, for instance, show that in 2005 the country imported 77.6 million barrels of crude and refined petroleum products valued at $411 billion (about P200 billion or roughly about one-fifth of the country’s annual budget).

It was only in 2005 that the government mustered the political will to tackle the problem by the proverbial horn, resulting in the passage of the Biofuels Act of 2005 (Republic Act 9637). RA 9637 is principally authored by Rep. Juan Miguel Zubiri of Bukidnon, a UP Los Baños alumnus who is now in the running for senator.

Under the law signed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo last Jan. 12, fuels such as gasoline and diesel should be blended with one percent bioethanol (coconut methyl ester or CME) within three months of the effectivity of the law. The blend will subsequently be increased to two to five percent in two years. Within four years, a 10-percent blend will be mandated.

Full implementation of the Biofuels Act is expected to save the country at most P35 billion worth of oil imports annually.

The government sees no reason why implementation of the Biofuels Act will be delayed, with the National Biofuels Board (NBB) seeing to it that it will be so.

RA 9637 is expected to boost the development of the country’s corn, sugarcane, and coconut industries, which would be the source of raw materials in the production of bioethanol.

But considering that these crops are produced for specific purposes (corn feeds, coconut oil, and sugar), the government is also now considering alternative crops.

Now the object of research and development (R&D) activities is sweet sorghum, a special purpose sorghum with a sugar-rich stalk, almost like sugarcane, which is now being dubbed as “plant of life” because of its many uses.

As Agriculture secretary Arthur C. Yap said at the first DA-BAR-sponsored “Technology Investment Forum on Sweet Sorghum for Ethanol Production” held last January 19, “Sweet sorghum is going to be a major player in the country’s drive toward energy independence because of its many uses.”

Consider the following:

• From the sweet sorghum’s stalk can be squeezed the precious sigar-rich juice suited for ethanol production. Further, the biomass after the extraction of juice is rich in micro nutrients and minerals that can be used as forage for animals.

• Its grains can be ground into flour for the making of cookies and other snack items.

  • Its leaves are also good feeds for ruminants (goats, cattle).
  • Its roots are good fuelwood.

Scientists at the India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) have found that sweet sorghum is a viable alternative for raw material in producing ethanol.

And the good news is that it also feels at home in Philippine farms, as proven by a research done recently at the Mariano Marcos State University (MMSU) in Batac, Ilocos Norte.

A brief background of the research project:

Early in 2006, President Arroyo personally received at Malacañang from then visiting India President APJ Abdul Kalam several kilos of foundation sets of sweet sorghum developed by ICRISAT.

Subsequently, DA-BAR, MMSU, and ICRISAT embarked on a program aimed to develop and commercially utilize sweet sorghum as potential source of ethanol and decrease the country’s dependence on imported fossil fuels.

With funding from DA-BAR and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), MMSU field-tested eight varieties, five of which have been found adapted locally.

Dr. William D. Dar, former Agriculture Secretary and now ICRISAT director general, reported during his visit to the Philippines early this year that the field tests, supervised by MMSU vice president Dr. Heraldo Layaoen, have shown encouraging results.

The average yield was 110 tons per hectare of sweet sorghum cane stalk for two cropping seasons in eight months (one main crop followed by one ratoon crop; ratoon is the outgrowth after the main stalk has been cut).

The yield of sorghum is higher with a much shorter cropping season (one season for sugarcane is 12 months compared to four months of sweet sorghum).

“It also requires less input and water compared to other bioethanol sources,” stressed Dr. Dar, who also was DA-BAR’s first director (1987).

The economics of sweet sorghum: The net income for two cropping seasons ranges from P65,000 to P72,000 per hectare.

Dr. Dar further asserted, “The commercialization and massive planting of sweet sorghum augurs well for our country, as President Arroyo recently signed into law the Biofuels Act, mandating the use of ethanol-blended gasoline and biodiesel.”

In another front, DA-BAR, ICRISAT, and UP Los Baños have also signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the production and development of hybrid varieties of sweet sorghum for biofuel purposes.

The tripartite agreement – signed by DA-BAR director Nicomedes P. Eleazar, Dr. Dar, and UPLB chancellor Dr. Luis Rey Velasco – focuses on the conduct of strategic research on the development of hybrid sweet sorghum and other important crops.

Corollary to these developments, several companies, including Chinese and Australian partners, have signed a letter of intent (LOI) to set up sweet sorghum ethanol plants here.

Rusni Distilleries, the leader of the Ethanol Distilleries of India, has also tied up with a Filipino farmers’ federation for the supply of a US$9-million multi-feeds stock ethanol plant.

As reported by farmer-leader agribusinessman V.L. Sonny Domingo, the farmers will be encouraged to engage in sweet sorghum production as they will eventually own the ethanol plant. Funding will come from government agencies and financing institutions willing to help the farmers integrate their farms for the high-value crops.

“The special engineering required to consolidate the farms of agrarian beneficiaries and upland farmers will be done by Green Roots Biotech Corporation with the Kapisanan ng Magsasaka, Mangingisda, at Manggagawang Pilipinas, Inc. Both corporations recently signed an agreement for the purpose of engaging in renewable energy projects nationwide,” Domingo said in a press statement.

Most important, President Arroyo has given her blessing and full support for the commercialization of planting of sweet sorghum as a viable and sustainable source of bioethanol.

Summing up, it will be soon when a big part of the country’s energy needs will be sourced from the farm instead of being extracted from the bowels of the earth.

That time will certainly be a high point in the saga of the biofuel in the Philippines, spanning eight decades from the time it was used to propel cars in the 1930s to today’s high-priced fossil fuels.

SOURCE: SEARCA Biotechnology Information Center

College, Laguna 4031

PHILIPPINES

Tel.: +63-49-536-7136

Fax: +63-49-536-7162

Website:  http://www.bic.circa.org

e-mail: bic@agri.searca.org

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