Sunday, May 18, 2008

Biodiesel hub taking shape in Thailand

New lease on life for abandoned orchards


YUTHANA PRAIWAN

A former tangerine orchard in Rangsit could be the next frontier in local biodiesel development, with heavy-duty support from a number of government agencies.

The first small harvest is about to get under way on 100 rai at the 20,000-rai site in the suburban area north of the capital in Pathum Thani, where oil palm trees were planted in 2004.

The pilot project is backed by state and private universities as well as the ministries of energy, agriculture, finance, and science and technology.

''With collaboration among related ministries, we plan to set up the perfect prototype for biodiesel, which is the last resort for the country to deal with the oil price crisis,'' said Capt Dr Samai Jai-In, an alternative fuels specialist with the Royal Thai Navy.

The first harvest is expected to yield 30-40 tonnes of fresh palm fruit a month from 100 rai.

Dr Samai examines a palm tree grown alongside jatrapha trees at the Rangsit site, where the first harvest on 100 rai will soon take place.

In the second phase, the project is to expand to 50,000 rai and expects to ultimately generate 200,000 tonnes a year of palm nuts that can be processed into biofuel.

The possibility of growing palm in high-acidity soil was initiated by His Majesty the King, whose idea led to a new growing method that transformed a site in Narathiwat province into a high-yielding palm oil plantation in 1983.

Rangsit was the country's premier orange-growing area 30 years ago, but output fell as the soil became increasingly acidic, and an outbreak of mosaic virus in 1997 proved devastating. Many farmers in the area are still paying off debts today.

Dr Samai said the farm owners at the time traced the problem to poor waste-water treatment at the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand's gas-fired power plant at Wang Noi.

Several hundred thousand rai of tangerine orchards in the area were abandoned after the virus outbreak and yields were low on those that remained. Most of the growers moved to new sites in Kamphaeng Phet and Phichit provinces.

Dr Samai said that rehabilitating the soil in the area so that it could support other farm crops would cost a huge amount of money.

But growing biofuel crops such as palm and developing a biodiesel complex would make the area economically viable again.

''A century ago, soil in the Rangsit area was so high in acid that it could not even support the fishery due to the poor quality of water,'' he said.

Tests done so far at the site showed that it could produce about four tonnes per rai of oil palm _ higher than the country's average of 2.8 to 2.9 tonnes.

Dr Samai said biofuel output from the complex would have a competitive production cost, not only because of the high-yielding plantation and efficient production technology, but also because the area had superior irrigation and infrastructure.

Pornchai Rujiprapa, the permanent secretary of Energy Ministry said the managers of the project were preparing to build a palm crushing plant and a refinery to produce B100 or 100% biodiesel.

The plants will benefit from equipment and technical support provided by the National Science and Technology Development Agency, which is headquartered nearby. Kasetsart University is supporting research and development of new palm-based products and production processes, while PTT Plc has committed to buy all of the biodiesel output.

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