Mon, Sep 25, 2006 - Page 11 News List

Plant-fueled automobile lifts hopes in Indonesia

AFP , JAKARTA

Indonesia's first fully plant-fueled car has successfully completed a 3,200km road trip. Now its backers are hoping the triumph may herald a new era of sustainable energy in the archipelago nation.

Tanto Bangun, editor of Indonesian National Geographic, one of the major sponsors of the trip, said he was not sure the Mitsubishi Strada would survive the arduous journey from West Timor's Atambua to the capital Jakarta.

But the car, fueled with oil from the jatropha plant, smoothly negotiated the freezing volcanic peaks of Flores and Sumbawa islands, as well as the sweltering Javanese countryside.

The trip was the brainchild of Bangun and Robert Manurung, head of the biotechnology research center at the Bandung Institute of Technology.

"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 appreciated because many industries related to fossil fuels don't like this development," Bangun said.

challenge

"So I challenged him: Can we make a journey on pure jatropha oil?" Bangun said.

Manurung, who has spent several years looking at 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 vehicle.

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

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

"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," Hamdi said. "Biofuel will secure our energy sources."

Jakarta has formulated plans to make at least 5 million hectares of former forest land available for palm oil, jatropha, sugarcane and cassava plantations in a bid to create jobs for up to 3 million people, Hamdi says.

Diesel trucks and buses across Indonesia can already buy biodiesel, a mixture of palm oil -- another biofuel -- and fossil fuel, at 120 gas stations run by state oil company Pertamina, he notes.

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

Environmentalists applaud Jakarta's plans for alternative energy sources, but warn that palm oil is 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," urges Elfian Effendi from Greenomics.

Palm oil, which requires fertile land, eats up valuable soil for producing food, but jatropha, notes Manurung, can grow on dry wasteland.

ideal crop

Jatropha is ideal for the drought-prone parts of eastern Indonesia that struggle to grow other food crops, and establishing a jatropha plantation costs just a tenth of setting up a palm oil plantation, he said.

Manurung has been talking to farmers in Papua, Kalimantan and Nusa Tenggara and hopes to facilitate a deal between them and European buyers to cultivate a million hectares of jatropha.

A Dutch company has already requested half a million tonnes of pure jatropha oil for next year, Manurung says.

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