Oiling the Wheels of Change
With Honduras still shouldering the highest gasoline prices in Central America, it could be time to consider a more ecologically and economically friendly alternative: Palm oil.
The price of diesel in Honduras continues to rise. The national average for March was $2.60, up fifteen percent from last year’s average. Recent protest strikes are just one example of the public dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.
Of course, with no facilities for processing crude oil internally, all of Honduras’ gasoline is imported – around ten million barrels per year – with prices largely dependent on other countries’ export rates as well as the tax levied by the Honduran government.
But there is an alternative. Once converted through a simple process known as transesterification, the oil of the African palm – one of Honduras’ major existing natural resources – can make an efficient biofuel to run diesel engines without the need for any modifications. In fact Rudolph Diesel demonstrated over a century ago that the engine he had invented could run perfectly well on peanut oil.
Research in Malaysia in 2003 concluded that while it can be comparatively difficult to start a standard diesel engine on palm biodiesel owing to its high viscosity, once up and running there are no problems.
Crude palm oil, of which around 250 million kilos will be produced in Honduras this year, is thick and dark red. When it is refined the biodiesel produced is pale yellow, has no odor, smells like frying potatoes when it burns and creates very little smoke. And even more importantly for a country crippled by the price of its gasoline, it could prove up to ten percent cheaper than its non-renewable counterpart.
It’s also considerably better for the environment. “Burning diesel produces large amounts of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide,” says Omar Riera, a chemical engineer at Dinant Corporation owned by Miguel Facusse and located in Tegucigalpa. ”Biodiesel may not be 100 percent emission free, but there’s a reduction of up to 90 percent.”
With access to a supply of palm oil, methanol, and sodium or potassium hydroxide as a catalyst, basic transesterification is theoretically simple enough to be done at home.
A given quantity of crude palm oil will produce almost exactly the same quantity of biofuel, and the equivalent amount of methanol necessary for the reaction – roughly ten percent of the total – comes out as glycerin, a common ingredient in a wide variety of medicines and cosmetic products. “This is one of the most efficient of all chemical processes, and it can work with palm oil; coconut oil; vegetable oil, whatever,” adds Riera.
Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia currently produce 80 percent of the world’s palm oil between them, with two million hectares of agricultural land dedicated to the African oil palm in each country. In Europe, biofuel is produced primarily from the more prevalent oilseed rape and sunflower crops.
Resources in Latin America may seem modest when compared with their Asian counterparts. Honduras can boast the largest plantations in Central America with 70,000 hectares. In Brazil, where around 100,000 hectares are given to cultivating African Palm, it is already used to generate electricity in stationary diesel engines – another potentially influential factor in Honduras.
So despite having a population some thirty times that of Honduras, Brazil has little more palm oil at its disposal – but they are exploiting its potential. Per capita Honduras is at a massive advantage, with a valuable resource on our doorstep to fight the gasoline crisis internally rather than continuing to rely on foreign imports.
The Honduran oil palm industry has a somewhat checkered past. Back in 1923, United Fruit (UFCO) controversially laid waste to huge tracts of local agricultural land in order to set up vast plantations. By 1990 almost 20 million kilos of oil were produced annually, most of which was retained and used internally.
In 1999, after Hurricane Mitch had battered the banana industry, some 30 million kilos were exported as palm oil took over as one of the country’s major resources. In 2005, according to Dinant Corporation, approximately 250 million kilos of palm oil will be produced in Honduras.
It has been argued by the World Rainforest Movement that African palm plantations are ruinous for the environment as well as for local communities. A study by Ricardo Carrere in The Bitter Fruit of Oil Palm proposes that “the problem is not the tree itself, but the plantation model under which it is grown.”
In many cases, he claims, agricultural land is replaced by endless rows of identical palms for the profit of a select few multinationals while rainforests are cut back, leading to soil erosion and the destruction of local wildlife habitat.
But with the industry already established much of the damage has already been done, and it could be time to consider using the resulting natural asset to support the national economy, as well as preserving another aspect of the environment.
According to Omar Riera, research into the possibilities is already under way. “We already have some experience in making methyl ester [biofuel] from the African Palm raw material through transesterification.”
“We have the resource here, and actually is refined and then we use it in the home for cooking and so on. But if we could produce biodiesel in Central America, it could work out up to ten percent cheaper for the end user.”
In El Salvador, Riera points out, some vehicles already run on biodiesel: The practical solution, he argues, is to stop thinking nationally and start thinking continentally.
“For a single country like Honduras to set up our own refineries would not necessarily be beneficial. But for Central America to have shared facilities, bypassing the transport costs and high export rates, would be an incredible advantage.”
Argentina has governmental incentives in place to encourage biodiesel production, and have made it exempt from tax. “As yet we’ve heard nothing from the Honduran government, but hope they will follow. I’d like to see a target of ten percent biofuel use by 2006.”
Honduras currently imports just over 1.1 million tons of diesel fuel every year. Dinant Corporation statistics show that were all the palm oil from the 70,000 hectares in Honduras used to produce biodiesel, it would satisfy just over twenty percent of this national demand.
To replace diesel fuel entirely, by Riera’s calculations, would require over 300,000 hectares of African Palm. This would give Honduras by far the largest crop in the whole of Latin America, and also exceed commercial plantations in several countries in the tree’s native Africa. Riera maintains that it could be feasible if the demand was there, but of course the environmental impact of such a massive expansion could be dramatic.
Even if a small proportion of palm oil biofuel were mixed with the existing diesel supply harmful emissions would reduce significantly, but if Central America were to develop its own refining facilities the savings on transport costs alone would be considerable. It’s a proactive solution that many other countries around the world are beginning to consider; Honduras need not be left behind.
This article was published in Honduras This Week, Saturday April 23rd 2005