Robert Manurung: Inventor of renewable green fuel

Jakarta Post, August 06, 2006
T. Sima Gunawan, Contributor, Jakarta

There is good news and bad news about research development in Indonesia. First, the bad news is that Indonesia often lags behind other countries. And now, the good news: An Indonesian researcher has applied pure jatropha oil as an alternative bio-diesel fuel.

The oil, which is produced from castor oil plants or Jatropha curcas, locally known as jarak pagar, is environmentally friendly and cheaper than fossil fuel, thanks to the hard work of Robert Manurung and his team at the Biotechnology Research Center, Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB).

“In research development, we are lagging behind other countries because we are often more content to follow rather than to become a leader or innovator,” lamented Manurung, 52.

While other scientists use methanol in processing jatropha oil, Manurung was determined to transform the oil into diesel fuel without adding any additional substance — and he succeeded.

The potency of pure jatropha oil was proven in the recent Jatropha Expedition 2006, an eight-day, 3,200-kilometer test-drive, using jatropha oil as fuel for three vehicles from Atambua, East Nusa Tenggara, to Jakarta. The expedition, which was also sponsored by National Geographic Indonesia magazine, gave the hope that renewable energy could replace fossil fuel that might run out in the next 50 or 100 years.

Local administrations in several regions, like East Nusa Tenggara, are planning to open jatropha plantations with a hope that local people would enjoy the economic benefits of the project.

Manurung was born in 1954 in Lumban Lobu, a small town near Lake Toba, North Sumatra. He graduated from the Chemical Engineering Department of the Bandung Institute of Technology in 1978 and three years later he obtained his master’s degree in Energy Technology from the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok. He obtained his doctorate degree in Chemical Engineering from Rijks Universiteit Groningen (RuG), the Netherlands in 1994.

Since 2002 he has become a visiting professor at RuG and at the ITB, a position which he still holds today. He was a visiting researcher (post doctoral) at The MIT Combustion Research Facility, Energy Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1993 to 1994.

To learn more about the alternative fuel, The Jakarta Post’s contributor T. Sima Gunawan talked to Manurung. The following are excerpts of the interview.

Could you explain more about your research on pure jatropha oil?

Since 1976 we have conducted research on renewal energy focusing on biomass waste with the hope that the gas it produces may be able to compete with fossil fuel through gasification.

In the 1980s we applied gasification technology in several areas. One of them was the power generator in Jayi village, Majalaya in West Java but after a few years we brought back the generator to Bandung because it could not compete with the government-subsidized power produced by the state electricity company (PLN). We learned the lesson that no matter how sophisticated a technology is, it will disappear if it cannot compete commercially.

We later used the power generator to supply gas fuel at our active carbon processing plant in Bumiharja village, Subang, in 1991 and it was here that we first got to know about jarak pagar (Jatropha curcas) which grew in a graveyard near the carbon plant.

After I returned from MIT, where I was involved in bio-oil development in 1994, we conducted research on jatropha oil. But in 1998, following the economic crisis, the government stopped providing funds, saying that the research was not relevant to conditions in Indonesia at the time.

Fortunately, overseas donors thought differently and funded our research at Rijks Universiteit Groningen in the Netherlands. Everyone at that time developed bio-diesel from vegetable oil using methanol, and this was the trend in the world, I chose to conduct a study on the use of jatropha oil in engines.

When I met a team from Japan who wanted to develop a new alternative energy source, I said that I was only interested in a research on oil which could be used directly in engines, while the waste could be processed. The source of this oil could be jatropha, peanut, coconut or sunflower.

Why did you choose jatropha?

We chose jatropha because of its economic value. It has many advantages because it can grow in dry and unfertile land and can be a source of income for poor people living in a dry area. Jatropha also has a high oil content. It would have a powerful social and economic impact if it could be used directly without any modification on standard commercial engines.

The fund to test pure jatropha oil on stationary engines was provided by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) of Japan, amounting to Rp 1 billion, and was managed by ITB. From the initial research, it was concluded that it was desirable to make pure jatropha oil for vehicle engines. As for the solid waste, it was to be processed to make organic fertilizer. The research was also funded by PT Biochem Prima Internasional, which provided Rp 1 billion.

The development of a technology to process jatropha seeds to produce quality oil which is equal to fossil fuel is funded by The Netherlands Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences with total funding reaching 1 million euros. This is a doctorate program at Groningan University and Wageningen University in cooperation with the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) and Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) for the period of between 2006 and 2010.

Are you satisfied with what you have achieved?

Satisfied? Not satisfied? I myself am confused, I don’t know how to answer the question because for me success is a journey, not a destination.

What is clear is that I really respect National Geographic (Indonesia) for organizing this Jatropha Expedition. I was really touched with the response of the people, from children to the elderly, who enthusiastically welcomed us. In East Nusa Tenggara region, which is quite poor, as we were in a convoy, they greeted us as if we were heroes, they regarded the rally as a symbol of hope, like a light at the end of the tunnel.

This expedition is only an initial step, but it is very important. In the journey, the dry land will become green with jatropha plants which can become a source of income for poor people and would supply endless green energy in the future.

Is it true that castor oil had been used a long time ago by the Japanese troops during the war?

It is said that castor oil was used during the Japanese occupation here (1942-1945). But it is not clear whether they used it as lubricant oil that was processed from Ricinus communis or it was used as fuel, processed from Jatropha curcas. The problem is there are no written records either in Indonesia or Japan about the type and quality of the oil and what it was used for.

Basically there are two kinds of castor oil. First the oil that is extracted from the seed of castor oil plants called Ricinus communis, which is good as a lubricant oil, and jatropha oil from Jatropha curcas, which is good as an alternative to diesel fuel.

Since 1950 there have been studies conducted on vegetable oil, chemically modifying the oil to become an oil ester known as bio-diesel. The modification is made using methanol to produce ester oil (bio-diesel) and glycerol as the side product. Methanol is a product of natural gas or fossil fuel. It is expensive and poisonous. Methanol can also be used directly as an alternative fuel for gasoline, which is quite expensive.

It is easier and cheaper to process pure jatropha oil. People will not depend on fossil fuel and will be self sufficient in terms of energy needs. The independent supply of bio-fuel that is made possible by pure jatropha oil will one day be very important for this nation even though at a certain point it may become a threat for oil suppliers who currently dominate the technology and oil market.

At the beginning the government and some people might be confused about pure jatropha oil. It will be difficult to change what has been in practice because basically people are quite conservative, especially if it is learned from abroad. In the current circumstances, we cannot look at it from a narrow perspective because people are waiting for a new and efficient fuel and they are willing to play a role.

Even though it is not perfect, the expedition is a new significant input for the government because so far there had not been any information about the use of pure jatropha oil for vehicles.

When will people be able to use the pure jatropha oil for their own vehicle?

Two or three years after this feasibility study and after the standardization of the fuel is set and especially after the availability of pure jatropha oil is guaranteed.

But we will start using it for stationary engines to generate power next year. This is for both the overseas and local markets. Today we have a request for 500,000 tons of pure jatropha oil in 2007 from the Netherlands. Two potential buyers firmly said they are only interested in pure jatropha oil. The problem we are facing is not technical, but the availability of the oil, i.e. the jatropha plantation.

Why are we usually left behind other countries in the field of research and technology?

Yes, we are left behind because we often act as followers and not as a leader or innovator. It is hard to become an innovator because you might be laughed at or what you do may be frowned upon by people who are textbook minded. We should start our research from the observation of the natural phenomenon and make research questions after sleeping over it and relate it with fundamental laws. If we don’t want to be left behind, we need to listen to Erwin Schrodinger (1887-1961): “Thus, the task is, not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everyone sees”.

What made you interested in becoming a researcher? Is it what you wanted to do when you were young?

I am not quite sure whether I had the interest when I was young. What I realize is that since I was a kid, I have liked working hard, I like reading and cultivating land, growing plants, which I am still doing now. I like reading books on life and science by people like Newton and Feymann and I was stimulated to think about something new. When I tilled the land and a plant grew, I saw a natural phenomenon, which is very sophisticated, how the plant changed CO2 and H2O to produce protein, carbohydrate and oil. Nature has taught us to think and to do something. We built the carbon plant for the research because we were forced to do so. The pressure that leads to an idea manifested in the production system will surely give benefits to us, and this is the real satisfaction.

Being a researcher is like a calling for me rather than a job or a career.

Could you tell us a little about your childhood?

Development is something that I have liked to see since I was a kid. When I was in elementary school I made soap from latex and timber dust and when I was in junior high school I processed oil from nilam (patchouli). I remember breeding chickens, starting from taking care of the mother hen to building the pen, providing the source of protein for the family. I remember making a big pond so that I could see the fish swim more clearly. The last thing I did before I left for Bandung in 1970 to attend a high school was I to provide firewood for the needs of my family for three years.

I have 11 siblings and my father imposed strong discipline on all of the family members to allow us to live peacefully. Each child had his or her daily duties before and after school, from simple tasks to more difficult ones. As for me, my first job was feeding the chickens and when I grew up I was told to provide firewood. At that time I found it hard to follow the regularity but maybe that was a must for a big family. We had to eat together so that the limited food could be equally shared and that there was no leftover.

What was your father’s job?

My father’s formal job was head of the Health Office, but I viewed him more as a preacher who liked to do social work for the church. He paid more attention to the poor and neglected. My mother was a midwife but did not earn enough from the patients, so she was involved in agricultural business.

My parents told me to be kind to the common people and to care for those who are neglected. The common people represent God on this earth and the neglected ones teach us about the temporal nature of things. If one can look for meaning, the door of opportunity will open widely.

Who are the people you admire most?

People who suffer in their love for truth and sciences. I admire Mother Theresa who served the poor in India.

How about your own family?

I married after I returned from my post-doctoral study at MIT so that was a little bit late. I have four children of between the ages of one and nine. All are educated with regularity and discipline to respect the surrounding environment and pluralism, especially because my wife is not from Tapanuli. She has Chinese, Japanese, Javanese and Pakistani blood.

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6 Comments

  1. I just want to comment something out of the topic.
    According to one of my lecturer back in my bachelor study period, ITB prefer that its name not to be translated to English in a multi-lingual forum.
    Instead, ITB prefer its name to be referred as Institut Teknologi Bandung.
    It can be cross-checked at the english page of ITB official home page: http://www.itb.ac.id/en/

  2. I just want to comment something out of the topic.
    According to one of my lecturer back in my bachelor study period, ITB prefer that its name not to be translated to English in a multi-lingual forum.
    Instead, ITB prefer its name to be referred as Institut Teknologi Bandung.
    It can be cross-checked at the english page of ITB official home page: http://www.itb.ac.id/en/

  3. Well, I want to make a remark on wisnu’s previous comment. Basically, the names of all universities musn’t be translated into English in English writings. It’s supposed to remain in its original name. For instance, UI must remain the same, Universitas Indonesia, instead of being transformed into the University of Indonesia, and so does ITB.
    What I know is there is a kind of imperialism on non-English languages, mainly non-English linguistics, from the English language. And the widespread of the imperialism cannot be separated from the US and England role in disseminating the influence of the English all over the world. Thus, we’re accustomed to translating our own fixed terms to English terms.

  4. Well, I want to make a remark on wisnu’s previous comment. Basically, the names of all universities musn’t be translated into English in English writings. It’s supposed to remain in its original name. For instance, UI must remain the same, Universitas Indonesia, instead of being transformed into the University of Indonesia, and so does ITB.
    What I know is there is a kind of imperialism on non-English languages, mainly non-English linguistics, from the English language. And the widespread of the imperialism cannot be separated from the US and England role in disseminating the influence of the English all over the world. Thus, we’re accustomed to translating our own fixed terms to English terms.

  5. am from Africa
    planning to set up a plantation in Uganda after being inspired …need more advice and contact to Dr. Robert

  6. am from Africa
    planning to set up a plantation in Uganda after being inspired …need more advice and contact to Dr. Robert

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