Can Singapore lead the search for a sustainable biofuel?BY SRIRAM SRINIVASAN
Compared to some other choices in clean energy like solar and wind, biofuels as an alternate energy source has been struggling to find a foothold globally despite strong demand from industry, regulatory “push” for sustainable energy sources and pressure from environmental activists.
One of the hurdles holding biofuels back from going mainstream is the food versus fuel controversy, where there are concerns about diverting food crops like corn, soy for biofuel production and the planting of fuel crops such as oil palm on land that could otherwise be used for food cultivation and animal grazing.
While the first-generation bioenergy crops such as corn, soy and oil palm have made much progress in paving the way for biofuels, it’s the second-generation of non-edible biofuels like Jatropha that will most likely deliver a sustainable and economically-viable solution in the near future.
What makes Jatropha unique as perhaps the strongest biofuel contender is that it is a shrub which yields a non edible oilseed suitable for biodiesel production, has a short gestation period, is adaptable to different climates and has the ability to grow on marginal land not suitable or intended for food agriculture use.
In its simplest form, Crude Jatropha Oil (CJO) can be used to power electricity generator sets while biodiesel converted from CJO can be used as a replacement to fossil diesel for vehicles without the need for major engine modification.
CJO can also be converted into bio jet fuel which has met with success when recently tested by Lufthansa, Air New Zealand and Air China in recent years.
While the promise seems bright, the challenge of commercializing this bioenergy crop is combating its checkered past. In 2004/2005, wild Jatropha was initially promoted as a ‘miracle crop’.
At that time, the Jatropha varieties promoted were the natural wild varieties which lacked adequate plant research. As such, outcomes such as seed yields did not meet expectations and many farmers abandoned the crop.
Since then, a handful of companies around the world including one from Singapore (JOil), have emerged and tackled Jatropha’s productivity challenges to unleash its potential as a sustainable biofuel feedstock.
Within a short span of about 6 years, Singapore through a research institute and company partnership has built a strong base in Jatropha R&D activities to improve both the quantity and quality of the biofuel through the application of breeding different varieties of the plant to create more productive and hardy hybrids, technologies like tissue culture and genetic modification.
Initial field trials with these varieties in India and Indonesia have begun to show promising yields that demonstrate that Jatropha could reach sizeable yields, in less than a decade, that allow it to be commercialized.
For instance, at current yields, Jatropha-based biojet fuel is more expensive than conventional jet fuel, however, when compared to other sources like algae and palm oil it can be cheaper, especially with the improved Jatropha varieties developed in Singapore’s labs. The aim is to triple Jatropha’s productivity from the current level of 2 to 2.5 tons of seeds per hectare to 5 to 6 tons of seeds per hectare which will make a Jatropha-based biojet fuel cheaper than conventional jet fuel.
As one of the few countries involved in Jatropha, the city-state stands to gain from this biofuel feedstock by leveraging its strength in oil, a developed infrastructure, strong intellectual property laws and an educated talent base to conduct scientific research.
Singapore is already home to Neste Oil’s biofuel facility which is one of the world’s most advanced and largest commercial production facility using renewable feedstocks. It is also one of the first locations in Asia to launch daily price quotations for biodiesel in Southeast Asia through Platts, which is a crucial step in commercializing the biofuels industry.
Singapore’s proximity to jatropha-producing countries in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia as well as customers in Japan, China, India and Australia presents the city-state a unique opportunity to become a major export hub for Jatropha oil and biodiesel. It can also elevate Singapore’s standing as a major biofuels supplier for Europe, the world’s largest market for biodiesel where there are large processing capacities set up but are presently underutilized due to a lack of sufficient levels of biofuel feedstock availability.
Aside from tangible benefits like industry growth, jobs and attracting companies to Singapore, the knock-on benefits are even greater -- that is, increasing the city state’s contribution to the global challenge of energy security and climate change. It also fulfills a strategic objective of diversifying national energy sources to complement existing energy sources which currently fuels 60 per cent of Singapore’s electricity production.