Sun, Apr 01, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Poisonous nut could be the fuel of the future


On a large tract of land in Thailand's dusty northeast, Suwit Yotongyot hopes to make a fortune on jatropha, a plant with a poisonous nut that might hold the key to the nation's energy troubles.

The flowering bush has long been used as live fencing in dry regions around the world.

But it's the deadly black nuts that have caught the attention of scientists who say that it could help produce biodiesel and ease Thailand's reliance on imported oil.

The nuts are more than 30 percent oil, which burns with a clear flame, producing a fraction of the emissions of traditional diesel. As a bonus, the oil can be used in simple diesel engines without refining, just by mixing it with fuel.

Suwit says the bushes are easy to grow, start producing nuts quickly, and are resistant to drought -- a key features in Thailand's arid northeast where rains are often inadequate.

Now he's trying to convince local villagers to use jatropha oil as fuel for their tractors as it is cheaper than normal diesel.

"It will help villagers reduce their costs when they're farming their agricultural products," said Suwit, a former adviser to the agriculture ministry.

Eventually, he hopes Thailand will follow India, Indonesia and the Philippines in pursuing development of jatropha to turn the nut into a viable fuel source.

Phichai Tinsuntisook, a businessman who heads the Renewable Energy Industry Club, said jatropha was more promising as a fuel than palm oil, which countries around the region are also investigating as an alternative energy source.

"Jatropha oil can go directly into a tractor, while direct use of palm oil will harm the engine," he said.

Residue from the pressed nuts can also be burned for fuel, he said, citing research that found cake from 800 hectares of pressed nuts could power a one-Megawatt electricity plant -- enough for 400 families, he said.

But Thailand, like other countries in the region, faces a chicken-or-egg issue with jatropha.

Farmers are reluctant to grow it, because there's no market for its use. But government is reluctant to promote because of the small supply of nuts, he said.

Consequently, Thailand has only 8,000 hectares planted with jatropha, mainly in the arid northeast and north.

The government may be changing its tune. Both ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his army-installed successor, Surayud Chulanont, have aggressively searched for new energy sources.

Thailand imports almost all the oil it needs for energy, making it vulnerable to rising oil prices.

The country is embarking on an ambitious series of dam projects across the border in military-ruled Myanmar, in a bid to generate hydro-electricity that would be brought back home.

Thailand also has major natural gas interests in Myanmar, and is always looking for more.

The kingdom has signed a deal with two Japanese companies to look into building a wind farm, and has investigated building a power plant that would run off waste from coconut trees.

Hundreds of gas stations in Bangkok already sell gasohol that is 10 percent ethanol and slightly cheaper than regular gas.

With global oil prices unlikely to go very far down, Phichai says Thailand also needs to invest in biodiesel.

"The energy crisis will become a bigger and bigger problem in the future, and jatropha is the alternative choice," he said. "The country can save money from importing oil and protect the environment at the same time."

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