No petrol, no diesel…what about biofuel?

Malawi has been hit with a series of chronic fuel shortages in the last two years. Everybody is pointing fingers and making contradicting statements, the President and the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority say its the Mozambicans holding fuel at the Beira port whilst the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and the Environment say it is a shortage of forex – whatever the case maybe – this is a wake up call for more sustainable, cheaper alternative forms of energy. ( FYI I am also writing in response to a comment posted to my interview on Nyasatimes “aNyagondwe how can science end fuel shortage”)

Its crazy to think with climate change caused by increasing carbon emissions that Malawi is seriously considering a coal powered electricity plant…Really!!!! I digress and will have to leave topic for another blog post. Biofuel are fuels made from organic material e.g. wood, sugar cane,  corn. There are two main types: bioethanol and biodiesel. Bioethanol is an alcohol made from the fermented products of sugar and starch crops like sugar cane. Biodiesel is made from oils from vegetables  and animal fat.

Biofuels offer greater energy security, reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and particulates, rural development, better vehicle performance, and reduced demand for petroleum.

So why not switch to biofuel? But before you run off and buy 5 litres of Kukoma cooking oil for your car, vegetable oil is different from biofuel, it is possible but not that simple to run your car on vegetable oil. It depends on you car and the type of oil. Petrol engines are not suitable for biodiesel or vegetable oil. Some petrol engines can run on bioethanol fuel.  Biodiesel can be used in any diesel engine when mixed with mineral diesel. Whilst some diesel engines can run on 100% biodiesel without alterations, other cars may need to modified.

Jatropha - image credit Tom Rulkens

Jatropha (nsatsi in Chichewa and mono in Tumbuka) is a plant grown locally in Malawi. Seeds from the japtropha plant can be crushed and processed into high quality biodiesel, the remaining seed cake can be used to power electricity plants or processed into a fertiliser. Other products from jatropha include soap, charcoal briquettes, organic fertilizer and oil for lighting. The trees produce seeds after eighteen months, can grow for 50 years, with the potential of one hectare of 2,500 trees yielding enough oil to produce 1,000 litres of biodiesel a year – a small holder farmer in Malawi could earn $2,000 per hectare yield.

Bio-Energy Resources Limited (BERL) is a local buyer of jatropha in Malawi. What is not clear is – what happens to the jatropha that is grown in Malawi? How much is grown? Is the jatropha been used merely to get carbon credits? Or is it been manufactured locally in to biofuel? Is jatropha a lucrative alternative for tobacco – Malawi’s main forex earner? Is it competing with land for food crops like maize?

According to a paper by Lester Brown (Director of the Worldwatch Institute) some 200,000 hectares of land in 2006 were being used to cultivate jatropha in Malawi which is exported and refined in South Africa.

The Department of Science and Technology in partnership with Etcho (the Ethanol Company) seem to be at a more advanced stage producing and testing ethanol run cars.

So maybe instead of crying for petrol and diesel we should be pushing the government for locally produced fuel alternatives!

6 thoughts on “No petrol, no diesel…what about biofuel?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention No petrol, no diesel…what about biofuel? « Communicating science, the African way --

  2. Hi,

    Great idea! Africa needs entreprenures like you!

    Here is a simple way to make biodiesel

    You can use the same method to produce biodiesel from Jatropha

    Here is a good resource for you

    If you would like any help with your Jatropha plantation please let me know, I liked Blantyre alot, there is a gentleman by the name of Niel Garden who could probably help you in Malawi


  3. This is a good innovation and there are many others.For instance, Malawi can start producing a certain blends of coffee just by using okra seeds.Do you know that? As i write that is what am drinking.Very excellent and like Mzuzu coffee.

    • Could you please tell me more about this coffee blend with okra seeds. Are they any online links? Its funny that despite Malawi coffee having a great International reputation for great coffee, few Malawians drink coffee!

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