LOEI: On a large tract of land in Thailand's dusty northeast, Suwit
Yotongyot hopes to make a fortune on jatropha, a plant with a poisonous
nut that might hold the key to the nation's energy troubles.
The flowering bush has long been used as live fencing in dry regions
around the world.
But it's the deadly black nuts that have caught the attention of
scientists who say that it could help produce bio-diesel and ease
Thailand's reliance on imported oil.
The nuts are more than 30 per cent oil, which burns with a clear flame,
producing a fraction of the emissions of traditional diesel. As a bonus,
the oil can be used in simple diesel engines without refining, just by
mixing it with fuel.
Suwit says the bushes are easy to grow, start producing nuts quickly,
and are resistant to drought — a key features in Thailand's arid
northeast where rains are often inadequate.
Now he's trying to convince local villagers to use jatropha oil as fuel
for their tractors as it is cheaper than normal diesel.
"It will help villagers reduce their costs when they're farming their
agricultural products," said Suwit, a former adviser to the agriculture
Eventually, he hopes Thailand will follow India, Indonesia and the
Philippines in pursuing development of jatropha to turn the nut into a
viable fuel source.
Phichai Tinsuntisook, a businessman who heads the Renewable Energy
Industry Club, said jatropha was more promising as a fuel than palm oil,
which countries around the region are also investigating as an
alternative energy source.
"Jatropha oil can go directly into a tractor, while direct use of palm
oil will harm the engine," he said.
Residue from the pressed nuts can also be burned for fuel, he said,
citing research that found cake from 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of
pressed nuts could power a one-Megawat electricity plant — enough for
400 families, he said.
But Thailand, like other countries in the region, faces a chicken-or-egg
issue in promoting jatropha.
Farmers are reluctant to grow it, because there's no market for its use.
But government is reluctant to promote because of the small supply of
nuts, he said.
Consequently, Thailand has only 20,000 acres (8,000 hectares) are
planted with jatropha, mainly in the arid northeast and north.
The government may be changing its tune. Both ousted Prime Minister
Thaksin Shinawatra and his army-installed successor, Surayud Chulanont,
have aggressively searched for new energy sources.
Thailand imports almost all the oil it needs for energy, making it
especially vulnerable to rising oil prices.
The country is embarking on an ambitious series of dam projects across
the border in military-ruled Myanmar, in a bid to generate
hydro-electricity that would be brought back home.
Thailand also has major natural gas interests in Myanmar, and is always
looking for more.
The kingdom has signed a deal with two Japanese companies to look into
building a wind farm off its southern coast, and has investigated
building a power plant that would run off waste from coconut trees.
Hundreds of gas stations in Bangkok already sell gasohol that is 10 per
cent ethanol and slightly cheaper than regular gas.
With global oil prices unlikely to go very far down, Phichai says
Thailand also needs to invest in biodiesel.
"The energy crisis will become a bigger and bigger problem in the
future, and jatropha is the alternative choice," he said. "The country
can save money from importing oil and protect the environment at the