The concept of using biodiesel may seem a new one, but it is not. Rudolph Diesel's first engine ran on peanut oil and now, a century later, it seems we are finally learning that natural oils are better for our health , our environment and ultimately our economy than fossil alternatives.

No More Coals To Newcastle!

Candida Jones | D1 Oils

No more coals to Newcastle

UK Firm Pioneers Biodiesel That Grows on Trees
by Candida Jones for D1 Oils

The British have a saying, "taking coals to Newcastle", that Americans might render as "taking steel to Pittsburgh". Newcastle, one of the centres of Britain's industrial revolution, was for hundreds of years the main source of coal for London. So taking coal to the city was the epitome of a pointless activity. Now, however, D1 Oils, a UK company based in Newcastle, has come up with a new and environmentally sound spin on the old adage. Rather than dealing in the kind of carbon-rich products that Newcastle's economy depended on for so many years (and left its countryside scarred and its towns polluted), D1 will be importing to the UK vegetable oil from some of the poorest countries in the world for refining into biodiesel.

Biodiesel is a renewable liquid fuel extracted from biological raw material and is an excellent low-carbon substitute for oil in the transport sector. The vegetable oil which D1 will import will be derived mainly from the jatropha tree, which can grow in some of the least hospitable soils in Africa and Asia, bringing work and foreign currency to those who grow and refine the energy crop, and bringing clean fuel alternatives to both the developed and developing world. In short, the cultivation of energy crops may be just what the developing world needs if it is to avoid taking the same polluted path to industrialization that Newcastle itself embarked upon over 200 years ago.

Jatropha - the fuel of the future

D1 is focusing its efforts on extracting oil from the seeds of the jatropha tree, which, once processed, has similar physical and chemical properties and a similar energy value to normal fossil diesel, and which can be blended with conventional diesel. Jatropha seeds have an oil yield of up to 40%, and produce profitable byproducts such as glycerine for cosmetics and seed cake for fertilizer and animal feed. Jatropha can be grown almost anywhere but does especially well in West Africa, Southern Africa and India. It grows quickly, and is hardy and drought-tolerant. Jatropha establishes itself easily even in arid and waste land where other crops would perish, and such land is often abundant in the poorest areas of the developing world. Jatropha can even be grown on semi-desert using waste water, making it a useful tool in the prevention of desertification. Since planting, growing and refining jatropha seeds requires manpower, its cultivation would generate large numbers of agricultural jobs in regions where there is often widespread poverty. D1 does not aim simply to cultivate the seeds for the benefit of foreign markets; it has developed a modular transportable refinery for producing biodiesel locally from various feedstocks. The refinery produces minimal emissions, uses virtually no water and can be powered in remote locations by its own biodiesel. Indeed, using biodiesel in transport and in power generation will allow the developing world to expand its economy and industry without this growth being at the expense of its environment.

But importing biodiesel from the jatropha tree would also help Europe. It would provide a crucial fillip to the EU's biofuels policy while assisting with the realisation of clean-air legislation, climate change reduction and security of supply.

Biofuels legislation

The EU's Biofuels directive requires a minimum level of biofuels as a proportion of fuels sold of 2% by 2005, 5.75% by 2010 and 20% by 2020. These targets will create a demand of 14m tonnes of biofuels by 2010 of which the European Commission expects biodiesel to represent 7.8m tonnes. Currently the EU relies on the heavily-subsidized cultivation of rapeseed and sunflower to help meet these targets. Already some 3m hectares of agricultural land across the EU cultivates 10m tonnes of rapeseed, an area roughly the size of Belgium, but since just 20% of this (or 2m tonnes) is ultimately used for biodiesel as opposed to edible rapeseed oil, another whole Belgium would have to be covered in the yellow rape seed blanket to meet the EU biofuel targets. Rapeseed also tires the land, requiring a combination of crop rotation and fossil-based fertilizers to keep production going and preventing farmers from growing more environmentally-friendly organic products or less intensive crops. D1 believes that jatropha could fill the biofuels gap which is currently being plugged by ever more crops of rapeseed.

Biodiesel - better for health and the environment

The cultivation of energy crops brings with it health and environmental benefits for both the host country and the importing nations. According to the International Energy Association (IEA) the use of oil, including diesel, for road transport will double in the next 25 years and greenhouses gases will increase commensurably with disastrous repercussions for our environment. Compared with mineral diesel, however, biodiesel reduces particle emissions (PM) by 30%, carbon monoxide (CO), which affects air quality and human health, by 50% and sodium monoxide (SOx) by 50%. The US Department of Energy has confirmed that "the biodiesel 20 mix (a 20% biodiesel solution) emits 16% less CO2 than petrol diesel", making even diluted biodiesel a preferable option to conventional fuel. Unlike mineral diesel, biodiesel is non-toxic and is biodegradable. In tests sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture biodiesel was confirmed as ten times less toxic than table salt and as biodegradable as dextrose. Added to these statistics the obvious need for the world to find alternative energy sources to volatile Middle Eastern oil and the EU's stated objective of ensuring a secure and diverse energy supply, and biodiesel becomes an ever more attractive alternative.

Progress in the developing world

D1 has already embarked on the long road of finding ideal locations for the cultivation of jatropha, securing supply deals and planning refineries both in the UK and on location in the developing world. This winter D1 expects to open its first refinery in Newcastle. Plans are already underway to establish facilities at various locations in the developing world, and D1 has signed plantation agreements in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia.


India offers an ideal market for biodiesel. Not only is the country undergoing rapid economic expansion, but increases in world oil prices have been a catalyst for India to speed up a non-fossil fuel development programme. India also has large areas of poor quality land ideal for the cultivation of energy crops, so growing jatropha will not divert land away from growing vital food crops.

It is estimated that 75% of the increase in world demand for oil over will come from transport. Given India's booming economy, its transport sector will consume ever higher amounts of fuel over the coming years. Indeed, demand for diesel fuel only is expected to grow from current levels of 44m mt to 67m mt by end of decade. Aware of these predictions, the government of India has a $300m biofuels programme in place which foresees India replacing 5% of current diesel with biodiesel by 2005/6, eventually rising to 20%.

D1 Oils India, a subsidiary of D1, is already in discussions with the Indian government to see how it can help India meet these targets. According to D1 estimates, for India to reach its target of 20% biodiesel mix, some 2m hectares of jatropha will be needed. With this target in mind, D1 has been working with the Tamil Nadu agricultural university on research into jatropha and large-scale planting and has put forward proposals to plant jatropha in Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

D1 wants to involve local organisations, ranging from NGOs to women's self-help groups, in the planting. Ultimately, it intends to site refineries across India, supplying direct to buyers such as Indian Oil. D1 estimates that 10,000 hectares will be required for each refinery, producing 8,000 tonnes of diesel from 20,000 tonnes of seed.

"In addition to bringing our biodiesel expertise to the Indian Sub continent we will work with state agricultural universities to produce the focused fertilisers for the Jatropha tree. There will be a branch in each of the target states", says Roger King of D1 Oils India.


D1 is also able to produce biodiesel from other feedstocks, such as coconut oil. In June this year D1 Oils signed an agreement with the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) for a pilot project producing biodiesel from coconuts for export to Japan and possibly China. The oil will be produced from a coconut plantation of 10,000 hectares on the Bondoc Peninsula in Quezon Province. Utimately, the company is also planning to teach farmers how to intercrop jatropha with coconut palms to boost overall production of feedstock. D1 will provide the technology, training and quality standards support for an on-site biodiesel refinery. The government of the Philippines is to introduce a 1-2% blend of coconut biodiesel for its own transport industry, so this kind of production work will ultimately benefit both the Philippines and Japan. In April this year, Philippine President Macapagal-Arroyo announced that the development of coconut biodiesel production would form a major part of government's efforts to reduce energy costs. The PCA, together with the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources, are promoting the use of biodiesel to meet the emissions standards laid down by the Philippine Clean Air Act of 1999. If the pilot project is successful, the model will be rolled out to 27 other regions of the Philippines, with plantations covering a further 25,000 hectares.

"Given clean air rules coming into force in Japan, and the Philippines, and government tax incentives in other countries, we expect the biodiesel market in Asia to expand rapidly", says Mark Quinn, CEO of D1 Oils. "The agricultural sector in developing countries like the Philippines has the opportunity to meet this demand by growing biofuel crops on a large scale and producing biodiesel for export and for their own transport needs".

According to Danilo Coronacion, PCA Administrator, "Our vision is to make the Philippines the biodiesel production centre for the Asia-Pacific region. The use of diesel will benefit both coconut farmers and reduce the Philippines dependence on imported oil."

The concept of using biodiesel may seem a new one, but it is not. Rudolph Diesel's first engine ran on peanut oil and now, a century later, it seems we are finally learning that natural oils are better for our health, our environment and ultimately our economy than fossil alternatives. The planting of trees in the developing world can not only provide millions of man hours of jobs, it can also help reclaim marginal and waste land, reduce poverty, provide "carbon sinks" that soak up green house gases and assist the world's poorest agricultural sectors. Non-food energy crops in the developing world can be grown economically because of the hotter, drier climate, are not subject to EU tariffs and could feed EU's need for biodiesel and the developing world's need for cleaner transport fuel. With a view to continuing D1's march towards a cleaner future, D1 Oils is planning a stock market floatation in London this autumn to expand its current operations. If acorns can produce huge oak trees then there seems little reason why jatropha seeds can't help produce the energy revolution the world so desperately needs.

Candida is an environmental writer and consultant. She is former editor of Environmental Business News Briefing and a former journalist at Financial Times Energy.

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