MANILA, APRIL 25, 2006
 (STAR) By Celeste Llaneta - The news of an energy crisis has been touted so often in the media that it has practically lost its edge. Unfortunately, public indifference and resignation do not diminish the gravity of the problem of the rising cost of fuel.

The government has proposed measures aimed at, among other things, developing alternative and renewable energy resources. The past years have seen the emergence of some choices of alternative fuel such as biodiesel, bio-ethanol, coco-biodiesel, and biogas. These alternatives might be the solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem.

Vegetarian fuel

Biodiesel, as defined in the Iowa State University Office of Biorenewables Program website, is any biodegradable fuel "produced through a process in which organically derived oils are combined with alcohol to form ethyl or methyl ester."

Biodiesel is a natural hydrocarbon which, when blended with petrol-based fuel even in little amounts, translates into less toxic emissions.

Moreover, biodiesel comes from a renewable source – plant or animal oil. Most car engines today can run on a blend of biodiesel and petrol-based diesel. Examples of biodiesel include coco diesel, ethanol, and methanol.

Not-so-virgin coconut oil

Coco biodiesel has received a definite go-signal from the government. In 2004, President Arroyo signed Memorandum Circular No. 55, mandating all government bureaus and departments to add a one-percent blend of coco biodiesel in their diesel requirements. Coco biodiesel, or Coconut Methyl Ester (CME), which is derived from coconut oil, has been endorsed by the DOE as offering "excellent lubricity, solvency and detergency." Moreover, coco-biodiesel can be used in any diesel engine with little or no modification to the engine or fuel system.

A team from UP Diliman’s Department of Mechanical Engineering has been doing test productions of coco-biodiesel. The group, headed by associate professor Dr. Edwin Quiros, used different blends of coco-biodiesel and petrol-based diesel and recorded data on fuel economy and smoke emissions. "With these small percentages of biodiesel, emissions were reduced compared to straight diesel," Quiros reports, citing a 10 to 15 percent reduction. "As for fuel economy, there was not much of a difference between it and straight diesel. So it seems if you’re going to use biodiesel as a fuel additive to straight diesel, the main benefit would be reduction in smoke emissions."

It wouldn’t represent a reduction in expense, due to the relatively high cost of the raw material. Dr. Karl Vergel, head of the Transportation and Environment Group of the National Center for Transportation Studies, points out that even a one percent blend would put too much pressure on the supply of coconuts. After all, coconuts are the main ingredient in a whole range of other products. "The bulk of our coconut oil is exported," Quiros explains. "When you sell it abroad, you naturally earn more from it."

New meaning to ‘sugar-rush’

Fuel ethanol, defined in the DOE website as "a high-octane, water-free alcohol produced from the fermentation of sugar or converted starch," is one of the most popular alternative fuels. Pure ethanol burns far more cleanly than other fuels, with end-products consisting of carbon dioxide and water. Most cars today can handle up to a 10 percent blend of ethanol. Many countries have successfully campaigned for the use of fuel ethanol, including Brazil, Europe, the US, Australia, China, India, Japan, and Thailand.

In the Philippines, the National Bioethanol Program was launched in May 2005. The Philippine Fuel Ethanol Alliance (PFEA) is actively campaigning for the passage of a House bill and a Senate bill seeking to establish a bioethanol industry in the country.

Main sources of ethanol are corn, cassava, sugarcane, and other starchy materials. Dr. Reynaldo Acda, former dean of the UP Los Baños College of Engineering and Agro-Industrial Technology, favors ethanol obtained from sugarcane.

"Sugarcane is widespread," he says. "Besides, Filipinos are more familiar with sugarcane agronomy. We know how to raise tubo well."

Another advantage to ethanol, Acda says, is that "it is relatively inexpensive to produce ethanol. This is using modern technology, not the old technology."

Acda emphasizes the use of modern technology because it addresses one of the major misgivings about ethanol production: the treatment of distillery waste.

Acda says the modern technology for waste treatment was not available in the past. Acquiring it would entail additional cost, of course, and may in turn drive up the price of ethanol.

Other challenges the Philippine bioethanol industry has to face, says Acda, are the lack of distilleries, the need to develop the local sugarcane industry and the need for fuel stations.

As for the cost of waste treatment, Acda believes that full government support would help make the Philippine bioethanol industry comparable to the rest of the world’s.

Anaerobic exercise

Perhaps the nascent bioethanol industry can take a page out of Dr. Wilfredo Jose’s project proposal.

Jose, professor at the UP Diliman Department of Chemical Engineering, devised a way of treating wet household wastes through anaerobic digestion, while at the same time solving the problem of noisy, smoke-belching tricycles present in every subdivision.

Wet biodegradable wastes are separated from dry wastes, ground finely, and sent through anaerobic digesters, where bacteria break down the wastes without the presence of oxygen.

This process produces methane, or biogas, which is processed further and put into a storage tank. The biogas is used to power the engine of an electric generator, which will in turn charge lead-acid batteries for an electric tricycle.

Besides this, Jose adds, the biogas can also be used for cooking, or to power a boiler or run an electric generator.

Jose mentions the importance of selecting the kind of waste that produces enough methane. He refers to the biological oxygen demand (BOD), or the amount of oxygen that will disappear from the water when aerobic bacteria break down organic material, a measure of the level of water pollution.

"The higher the BOD, the higher the level of pollution," he says. Good sources of biogas are swine and cattle manure. The best source is alcohol distillery slops.

In fact, Jose says, the biogas one can acquire from distillery slops can provide enough power to run the distillery.

Alternative engineering

It is almost common knowledge that the country is in dire need of a cure for its dependency on imported fossil fuel. It is in this area – how to bridge the gap between the scientific principles behind alternative fuels and the day-to-day realities – that engineers come in.

"Engineers are needed to make the principle practical," Jose says.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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