Jatropha oil: A promising, clean alternative energy

The Jakarta Post, 4 July 2006
by Yuli Tri Suwarni

Discovering an affordable and cleaner burning alternative energy source has long been the dream of industrial chemical engineer Robert Manurung.

Inspired by the difficulty of finding firewood in his hometown in North Sumatra, the 50-year-old native of North Tapanuli set out to find a cheaper energy source.

In the next six months, the Bandung Institute of Technology expert just might realize his dream. Oil produced by the castor-oil plant, known locally as pohon jarak (Jatropha curcas L), which Manurung has been studying for sometime, will on a trial basis replace diesel oil to generate electricity in East Nusa Tenggara.

His discovery, called Jatropha oil, was greeted with pessimism by several colleagues at the institute, some of whom said “it was nothing new”.

“But that pessimism motivated me to keep studying until I achieved real results,” he said.

It is true that Jatropha oil is not exactly new. When Japan occupied the country, it used oil from the castor-oil plant to light up the night and to move its war machines. But after Japan left, the oil also disappeared.

Castor-oil plants grow on parched land in East and West Nusa Tenggara and in parts of Java. In the traditional community, the leaves of the plants are placed in water and used to fight fevers. Some farmers in Java use the plants to separate their crops.

From the grass family, the plant is between three meters and five meters high. The oil itself comes from the oval-shaped dark seeds of the plant.

Manurung’s research on Jatropha oil was supported by the Mitsubishi Research Institute and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, a Japanese government institution that specializes in assisting research on new energy sources as part of the Kyoto Protocol. The protocol requires signatories to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

During research with his team, Manurung found a way to transform the oil from the castor-oil plant into a viable replacement for diesel oil.

In the first phase, the seeds of the plant are put into a machine where they are peeled. They are then placed under extreme pressure to produce oil.

“All the equipment is simple and the materials to make the machines are easy to find, so ordinary people can make the equipment themselves. This oil can be introduced to remote areas, where people can make the oil themselves for electricity generation,” he said.

He said if the partial cracking process of the Jatropha seed was continued, it could also produce modified bio oil, an alternative energy source that could replace kerosene.

People would not need to replace their diesel engines to use Jatropha oil, which has very low emissions.

The oil has attracted the interest of the Indonesian Farmers Association.

“It happens that I graduated with Manurung. This finding could have a positive impact on farmers and those living in remote areas,” said Mindo Sianipar, chairman of the association’s food crops, horticulture, husbandry and freshwater fisheries division. He has regularly been spotted at events to promote the oil since it was first introduced in February.

Mindo said he planned to introduce Jatropha oil to some 158,000 rice mill businessmen across the country.

“The use could be extensive because to mill paddy in an hour, they need between two and four liters of diesel oil for just one machine,” Mindo said.

East Nusa Tenggara Deputy Governor Frans Lebu Raya recently visited Bandung to express his province’s interest in growing Jatropha.

A kilogram of the plant’s seeds can produce 3.5 liters of oil. According to Manurung’s calculations, a liter of Jatropha oil would be about Rp 2,250 cheaper than a liter of diesel oil.

“In a month, a farmer could earn Rp 1.2 million from selling Jatropha seeds if he had access to three hectares of unused land,” Manurung said.

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