Palm Oil Biofuel

water truck fuel

Palm oil biofuel is produced from the edible vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree. In 2004, worldwide production of Soybean oil was around 28 million metric tons which was the most widely produced edible vegetable oil. However, it appears that palm oil may have now surpassed soybean oil production.

The palm fruit is the source of both palm oil (extracted from palm fruit) and palm kernel oil (extracted from the fruit seeds). Palm oil itself is reddish because it contains a high amount of betacarotene.

Thai train on biofuelBiofuels from palm oil are taking on renewed global importance as countries seek to substitute the soaring price of conventional oil and also cut hazardous emissions. Palm oil’s emergence in the market comes quite some time after the introduction of ethanol, made from sugarcane, and other additives. The Thai train seen on the left runs daily from Hatyai District (South Thailand) to Sugaikolok district (Thailand-Malaysia border), a distance of 214 km, and using 50% biodiesel from palm oil.

Comparative tests of indirect injection agricultural engines fuelled by diesel and refined palm oil and operating continuously at constant 75% maximum load and speed of 2,200 rpm indicate that for the first 1,000 hours of operation the specific fuel consumption of the engine fuelled by refined palm oil is 15-20% higher.

The black smoke density is not significantly different in the two cases. Wear in the engines fuelled by refined palm oil and diesel oil is not significantly different but wear in the compression rings of the engine fuelled by refined palm oil is significantly higher. (Prateepchaikul G., and Teerawat Apichato, Associate Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Prince of Songkla University, Hat Yai, Songkla 90112, Thailand. http://journeytoforever.org/biodiesel_SVO-palm.html) 


Impacts of Palm Oil Biofuel

While palm oil biofuel production is a major source of income for Malaysia and Indonesia, the main producer countries, bad practices in parts of the industry have also brought about high ecological and social costs. Industry growth is fuelling the rapid clearing of the most biodiverse tropical forests in the world, putting pressure on species that need these forests.

Forest fires to clear land for plantations are a regular source of haze in Southeast Asia, posing serious health problems. Unfortunately, where oil-producing plants are grown, the area is often clear cut to grow the lucrative oil palm crop. This has already occurred in the Philippines and Indonesia; both countries plan to increase their biodiesel production levels significantly, which will lead to the deforestation of tens of millions of acres if these plans materialize

A proposed scheme to plant palm oil biofuel trees, funded by China and supported by the Indonesian government, is expected to cover an area of 4.4 million acres on the island of Borneo. The World Wildlife Fund warns that plans to create the world’s largest palm oil biofuel plantation along Indonesia’s mountainous border with Malaysia could have a devastating impact on the forests, wildlife and indigenous people of Borneo.

Most of this mountainous region, part of the “Heart of Borneo,” still holds huge tracts of forests supporting endangered species like orangutans and pygmy elephants, and 14 of the island’s 20 major rivers originate there. According to WWF, new species have been discovered there at a rate of three per month over the last decade, making the area one of the richest on the globe for biodiversity. Loss of habitat on such a scale could endanger numerous species of plants and animals. A particular concern which has received considerable attention is the threat to the already-shrinking populations of orangutans on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra, which face possible extinction.

The oils for biodiesel and biodiesel itself, produced in Asia, South America and Africa are far cheaper than those produced in Europe and North America. Most biodiesel is therefore not a local, carbon neutral product. Biodiesel requires a large investment of energy before it arrives at petrol pumps. Coupled with the deforestation, and monoculture farming techniques used to grow crops, biodiesel represents a serious threat to the environment. Forests contain large quantities of carbon which are released when they are burnt to make space for farming. Forests also trap carbon in humus and soil, something that farming biodiesel crops do not do. 

Clearing forests is a cause of global warming and desertification . These problems will be exacerbated as biodiesel becomes more popular unless stringent laws are introduced and enforced to control biodiesel production. Palm oil biofuel produced from clear cut forest land offers no environmental advantage over petroleum diesel.