Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Lowly Shrub Seen as Solution to Fuel Crisis

By Eliseo Valendez

THE SAPPY and soft shrub that finds its worth only as a hedge plant in rural areas could save the country from economic difficulties brought by soaring oil prices.

Energy experts have acknowledged that the physic nut (jatropha curcas), locally known as macasla, tubang-bakod and tuba-tuba, is a good source of renewable bio-fuel that could replace expensive fossil fuels for vehicles and factories.

Last Aug. 22, the provincial board invited the Palawan Biodiesel Development Corporation (PBDC) to its regular session to explain the merits of the plant, which abounds in rural areas.

PBDC Pres. Caesar Ventura and Exec. Vice Pres. Laurence Padilla explained that Palawan has a great potential in developing macasla plantations considering its vast land area, favorable climate, and good labor source.

Ventura said many idle lands in the province could be used for plantations as the plant can adapt to any kind of soil.

Cultivation of macasla requires no fertilizers or pesticides, only the occasional clearing of weeds that might choke the plants. It also thrives well even if planted with other crops.

Propagated by simply inserting a stem in the soil, macasla starts bearing fruits within two years. For 40 years after the first year of harvest, the plant keeps yielding seeds for bio-diesel extraction, Ventura said.

The plant, which grows from two meters to five meters in height, yields clusters of round fruits about the size of pingpong balls with nothing inside but oil-rich seeds. The oil extracted from its dried seeds may be used as lighting material, emetic and purgative.

Manufacturers use the oil for making candles, soap, and varnish. The seeds are also used as rat poison and insecticide. Traditional fishers once utilized the seeds of a rare variety of macasla as fish poison, but the practice has been deemed illegal.

Aside from its oil, macasla is also used as laxative, remedy for cough, antidote for poisoning, cure for toothache and treatment of gonorrhea and syphilis in rural areas. The leaves, roots and bark of the plant can be used as dye, according to one research study.

Ventura said the use of bio diesel from macasla is not new. Research shows it was first used in 1896 when the diesel engine was invented.

According to historical accounts, Spanish colonizers brought the plant to the Philippines from tropical America, and cultivated them for use as fuel in their vessels’ lamps.

The bio-diesel could be used by itself in running engines, or it can be mixed with commercial diesel.

Demand is “Forever”

The use of bio-fuel would be a great help for the country with its growing demand for fuel, experts said.

The current annual fuel consumption of the country is six million tons, but it is expected to increase to 40 million tons by 2015.

With this demand, bio-fuels from plantations could answer the problem of supply, advocates said.

Commercial production of biodiesel from macasla has been going on for five years in countries like India and Egypt, according to Ventura.

In the Philippines, the technology is not yet fully developed so the expected harvest from Palawan would have to be exported to Japan and China, Ventura said.

However, Board Member Alice Fabellon questioned the stability of the market. She observed that several plantations have been introduced in the province, such as oil palm and coconuts, but these have not produced any remarkable results.

“We planted a little of everything and then we do not know how to sell,” Fabellon said. “The government is encouraging us to plant all these trees, but when grown up, the government does not help us to sell.”

Padilla assured investors that PBDC would provide the market, but they would have contracts with the corporation.

Ventura added that revenues from bio-diesel production would be better than the province’s expected revenue from Malampaya project. He said Palawan could only benefit from the gas project for 21 years but with bio-diesel it could be “forever.”

However, Vice Gov. David Ponce De Leon said, “we can never really say that for sure.”

The national government could again impose conditions, as the bill for the bio-diesel industry’s nationalization was passed recently, Ponce De Leon said. The province still has to see how the bill would affect the industry, he concluded.


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