14 Sep, 2007, 0044 hrs IST, AGENCIES
MAJURO: The first thing you notice about a diesel engine running on
coconut oil is the smell. "It smells sweet. You can put your nose
right up to the exhaust," says Witon Barry, assistant manager of the
Tobolar Copra processing plant in the Marshall Islands capital of
Majuro. Smelling just like coconut biscuits straight out of the oven,
the exhaust is a big improvement on an old diesel engine belching
acrid black smoke.
All over the Pacific power authorities, private companies and
entrepreneurs have been experimenting with coconut oil as an
alternative to diesel fuel for vehicles, power generators and even
"The idea goes right the way back to Mr Rudolf Diesel. He invented the
combustion engine to use peanut oil," says Jerry Kramer, chief
executive of Pacific International, a company pioneering the use of
coconut oil in the Marshall Islands.
The use of coconut oil received a boost in the last couple of years as
oil prices hit record heights and coconut oil fell to around $550 a
ton in the volatile world commodity markets.
Coconut trees are found everywhere in the Pacific's tropical islands.
The dried white flesh, known as copra, from six to 10 coconuts
produces a litre of oil, making the substitution for expensive diesel
seem a no-brainer.
But ironically the growth in the use of biofuels worldwide has helped
push the price of crop oils higher and coconut oil now fetches nearly
1,000 dollars a ton.
"There is strong demand for vegetable oils, there is a huge demand in
the US and Europe," says Jan Cloin, the energy advisor at SOPAC, the
secretariat of the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission based
"The Pacific island countries could get into a situation where they
cannot afford to use the oil themselves and would profit more by
sending their oil to other countries." Kramer's company exports most
of the oil from the Tolobar mill it operates for the Marshall Islands
government and its coconut oil fuel projects have recently taken a
back seat. "At the peak we used 100% coconut oil in ships with 1,000
horsepower engines and all the way down to five horsepower
generators," he said. But he remains committed to the idea, especially
using coconut oil to generate electricity in remote islands, where
diesel is particularly expensive.
Coconut oil was used as a substitute for diesel in the Philippines
during World War II when diesel was scarce but it is only in recent
years the idea has taken off.
The rising cost of oil, worries that oil will run out and increasing
concerns about the environmental impact of fossil fuels have all
boosted attempts to find alternative energy sources. In the Marshall
Islands, Kramer has been experimenting for several years with trying
pure coconut oil in some of his vehicles, as well as heavy machinery
and even tug boats and a cargo ship.
Some modern diesel engines are less tolerant of pure coconut oil.
Another problem is that coconut oil starts to solidify below 25
degrees celsius — but that is not a problem on many tropical islands.
Kramer found carefully filtered coconut oil with excess moisture
removed worked perfectly in many diesel engines.
"With some of our trucks we run, we've been running on coconut oil for
years and we haven't had a problem after four or five years." But for
many engines, a blend with diesel worked best.
"We did blends anywhere from 10% to 90% with diesel and found the most
tolerance for all types of engines was a 50-50 blend."
Australian-born entrepreneur Tony Deamer has also been experimenting
in Vanuatu, running some vehicles from his own hire car and car
dealership on pure coconut oil.
He has also sold a blend of 80% coconut oil and 20% kerosene as a
diesel alternative under the Island Fuel brand.
Island Fuel has been on hold recently due to some equipment problems
but Deamer says it will be up and running again soon.
Experiments with power generators have also been successful. In
Vanuatu, electricity company UNELCO has been using diesel blended with
coconut oil to run a large four megawatt generator.
Deamer says they are gradually increasing the proportion of coconut
oil, which is 15% now, to see how the generator performs.
On Savaii island in Samoa, the electricity company has been running
one generator on a coconut oil blend with success.
Deamer says substituting coconut oil for diesel will boost the
declining copra industry.
"My motivation is partly trying to keep some money going overseas here
in the country instead, and keep some employment in rural areas," he
said. "I think it still has a future, I think we can make it happen."
Cloin says the economics of using coconut oil for fuel are marginal,
although the copra industry is already subsidised in many island
countries, making diesel substitution more viable.
Earlier posts of Pacific Biofuels can be found at: