Power plants: UPLB leads in biofuel R&D
- Bernice P. Varona () - April 1, 2007 - 12:00am
As the cost of fuel keeps increasing, the need to look for alternative sources becomes more and more pressing. 

The University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB) has been working with the government to develop the National Biofuel Program. This February, it is signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Philippine National Oil Co.-Alternative Fuels Corp. (PNOC-AFC) to do research and develop programs on the production of biodiesel from Jatropha curcas and bioethanol from cassava and sweet sorghum. The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has committed funds for the expansion of these programs.

The 2006 Biofuels Act, which President Arroyo signed recently, requires that one percent biodiesel be blended in all diesel engine fuels. Within two years, this must be increased to two percent, and at least five percent bioethanol must be blended in all gasoline fuels. After four years, the bioethanol content of gasoline must be increased to 10 percent. The mixing of biofuels – fuels produced from organic materials – is expected to save the country more than P35 billion worth of oil imports annually.

Realizing the immense possibilities of biofuels, UPLB spearheaded last year its development by convening experts from the different state universities and colleges, research institutions, and other government and private agencies to discuss and exchange information.

"The workshop aimed to assess the state of R&D on biofuels in the country, identify R&D gaps, and formulate Integrated R&D program proposals on biofuels," said Prof. Rex Demafelis, convenor of the UPLB Alternative Energy RDE and chairperson of the Department of Chemical Engineering in the College of Engineering and Agro-industrial Technology (CEAT). "With the budget given by the PNOC-AFC and the DOST, we will be able to start implementing these proposals."

Two integrated proposals were generated after the workshop and a succession of meetings: an integrated R&D program for the production of biodiesel from Jatropha curcas (Tubang bakod) and another program on bioethanol production from sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) and cassava (Manihot esculenta crantz). These programs will integrate utilization efforts to support the biofuel industry toward energy independence that will, at the same time, be more environment-friendly and help generate rural employment and income. Assessment studies, varietal improvement, and the development of agricultural production systems, post-production management systems, processes, equipment designs, waste treatments, viable communication and policy analysis, and advocacy of the production of these biofuels are included in the proposals.

Aside from reducing cost, biofuels are able to reduce carbon monoxide, benzene, and butadiene emissions and other pollutants, and this makes for cleaner air. Biodiesel also lowers engine-operating temperatures, lessen build-up, and produce clearer soot.

"These plants are good sources of a lot of products, especially biofuel. Take, for example, the Jatropha, which grows in marginal and semi-acrid lands. [The Jatropha] bears fruits as early as six months after planting, and has a lifespan of up to 50 years. Per year, this plant produces as much as five tons of seeds per hectare, which can yield 35 percent oil that is used for biodiesel," Demafelis explains. "Jathropa can also be used to produce herbal medicines, insecticides, and organic fertilizer among others. We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring the immense potential of these plants."

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