Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 149 | Diciembre 1993



Biodiesel: The Miracle of a "Useless" Tree

Nicaragua can save tens of millions of dollars by sowing tempate trees and reaping diesel fuel. In these times of polarization and paralysis, this project offers the nation a great example of how to think and work with a vision of the future.

Raquel Fernández

According to scientific data, "tempate" (Jatropha curcas L.) is an oleaginous bushy tree belonging to the Euforbiaceas family, which has more than 3,500 species grouped into 210 types.

But the less scientific and more concrete truth is that tempate is an apparently useless and fairly ugly tree. So useless and ugly that it was virtually wiped out in Nicaragua, because nobody took the trouble to plant it, or let it grow. It is used as live fencing only because its poisonous fruit scares off cattle and thus helps keep them in the pastures.

Tempate doesn't work as a shade tree, because in the summer, when the heat is at its worst, the leaves fall off. Nor is it appropriate for firewood, because it does not burn well. In a word, it's a tree that's not good for anything.

The News Came from Africa

The hint of a possibility that the tree might be good for something came from an unusual place: Africa. There, tempate, a purely South American tree, arrived in Portuguese slave ships that trafficked with Brazil.
In the African countries of Cape Verde, Madagascar and Mali, the juice of the seed was used to produce an oil that could be used for cooking and for public lighting as well. The arrival of this information to Nicaragua and the good use to which it has been put could be considered an expression of the fruits borne by efficient South South communication. Once the unexplored possibilities of tempate became known, a problem emerged: there were almost no tempate trees left in Nicaragua. Two women, engineers Maritza Sánchez and Josefina Romo, headed up the search for the lost tree.
"Very few were left, they were isolated and we had no way to know which had the best genetic characteristics to make diesel," explains Romo. "We had to resort to selecting the best and obtain the seed for replanting based on the phenotype." In other words, by sight. When they saw a tempate with elegant characteristics, they collected its seeds to begin an experimental plantation with two objectives: beginning the tests to get vegetable based diesel and harvesting new seeds to expand the planting area.

Austria Lends a Hand

Research about tempate has been underway for three years in the Division of Research and Technological Orientation of Nicaragua's National Engineering University (UNI), with financing from the Austrian government through the Sucher and Holzer firm.
Nikolaus J. Foidl, director of the Austrian project component, explains that in his country there is long experience in the preparation of vegetable oil based fuel. For decades now, oil derivatives obtained from a seed known as colza have been used to power all heavy machinery in the country.

"Of the immense variety of plants on the planet, only 1.5% have been seriously studied," Foidl points out. "And of those, only 10% are really put to use. There is much work to be done. You can be sure that all humanity's needs have answers in plants, which are a renewable resource."

The Tempate

Tempate is a tree with a third world calling. It prefers marginal and eroded lands to grow on, lands that have been exhausted and no longer serve for agricultural activity. One variety brought from Cape Verde needs very little water to grow 200 500 mm. of precipitation annually is enough, although it can also take rains up to 2,000 mm. annually. In a word, tempate can grow where almost nothing else does and can get by in flood or drought conditions.

Its productivity is also like that of a poor person it begins to produce in a profitable way one year after it's planted. Production increases yearly during the first five years and it stabilizes at that point for its 30 50 remaining years of life.

At the moment, a number of cooperatives located on the poor, clay soils of Telica, department of León, have begun to plant tempate to harvest the seed from which biodiesel is extracted. In this first agricultural cycle (1993 94), between 2,200 and 2,550 pounds are expected per acre in a 120 acre plantation. The entire harvest has already been sold to UNI's Tempate Project.

This year's crop created 80 jobs. But in the next cycle, the cooperatives plan to increase the planted area to as much as 2,300 acres, which would generate more than 1,200 new jobs. In Telica, 80% of the nearly 25,000 inhabitants are unemployed.

Everything Gets Used

The tempate fruit is like a coffee colored ping pong ball. Inside, wrapped up in a parchment shell, are a number of seeds of the size, shape and appearance of an almond, though whiter. To get the almond out, the fruit has to be peeled. But since the tempate is a tree for the poor, the peel is also used. It is not thrown out, but is stored in a special tank where, through a natural process, it is transformed into biogas and liquid fertilizer.

With this first step, the almonds are obtained still wrapped in their parchment husk. It is freed by drying the seeds in a special oven. From there, the seed goes to a mill where the almond is separated from that husk, which is sent back to the drying oven to be used as fuel, since nothing is wasted here.

Meanwhile, the seed is pressed and, with this step, two products are obtained. One is the juice of the seed, which is a vegetable oil that can be used for human consumption. The other is a cake, what is left of the seed after it has been pressed.
This cake, which contains some toxic components, is also very useful once the dangerous elements are eliminated. It is transformed into an excellent and balanced cattle feed, with a protein content over 50%.

Nicaragua imports 10,000 tons of balanced cattle feed annually. If the tempate is adequately used, these imports could be reduced and eventually eliminated, with the subsequent savings in hard currency.

Modify the Motors or the Oil?

Vegetable oil has been used as fuel since ancient times. Oil lamps illuminated the silent nights of antiquity and still burn in the shrines of Catholic temples. In more recent times, experiments have been carried out to use vegetable oil in fuel injection diesel machinery. But after a number of attempts in Brazil, Canada and Thailand it was proven that oil, due to its high viscosity, molecular mass, high inflammatory point and formation of solid residues, poses serious difficulties to normal motors designed to run on diesel.

Tempate oil presents the same problems as any other vegetable oil, and thus two alternatives were proposed: modify existing motors so they can function with vegetable oil, or modify the vegetable oil so it can make existing motors function. The first alternative is beyond Nicaragua's technological possibilities. Thus, the alternative of developing research along the lines of transforming the oil prevailed.

Chemistry Intervenes

There is a chemical process known as trans esterification. It consists of converting an ester of one organic acid into another of lesser molecular mass. This process takes place through a reaction of alcoholization with methanol, ethanol, butanol and others. Stated this way, it would seem to be a very complicated process, but in reality it is a technology that can be implemented in Nicaragua without difficulties.
In this process, a product is formed called Methylitic Ester of Tempate Oil (EMAT), which is essentially a combination of esters of the different greasy acids contained in oil. EMAT has combustion characteristics similar to diesel, but produces less residues. It is purer, which avoids environmental contamination.

Mistreated Mother Earth

In ancient times, when dinosaurs so popular today walked the earth, or perhaps even before, the earth's atmosphere had a high carbon content. So much carbon that life as we know it today would have been very difficult.

Planet Earth, as if preparing to draw to it in an embrace this animal species known as "homo sapiens" spent millions of years burying this excess carbon in the earth and converting it into hydrocarbons. But civilized man invented the automobile and the need for cheap liquid fuel. And, in less than 100 years, man has once again cast into the atmosphere an incalculable amount of the carbon that Mother Earth had so painstakingly hidden away.
Like a sorcerer's apprentice, man touched off the emission of carbon, ignoring the complex consequences of that action. This is one of the many advantages that vegetable based fuel presents it returns to the biosphere what the tree took away. It changes, but does not upset the balance and nature has more than enough mechanisms to redistribute elements in the best fashion.

Reviving the Desert

Tempate is a species that can be developed in soils that are leeched and virtually useless due to poor agricultural practices. Tempate grows in these soils and when the dry season comes, its leaves fall and turn into mulch, enriching the ravaged land. The roots of the tempate are not very deep, but even so they help retain rainwater and assist it in penetrating the subsoil through to the water table. Like all trees, it is beneficial to and helps balance the ecosystem. With its green leaves and through the process of photosynthesis, it contributes oxygen to the atmosphere and to the cleansing of increasingly abundant toxins and pollutants. Although it is a tree with many uses, tempate continues to be a tree. The soils exhausted by human lack of vision little by little recover their fertility and are very well used. And in the shade of the tempate, the streams that dried up due to a process of desertification will surely run again.
But there is still one more aspect to take into account. It is common to see images flickering across the television of marine birds agonizing with their feathers dripping with oil, consequence of another ecological disaster. These disasters would not happen if tempate was used, because there would be nothing to transport. The tree could be planted and the EMAT obtained in the same place where the fuel was to be consumed, a tremendous savings. And in the case that there would be any problems along the short distance in which the fuel would be transported, nature would only need one week to reabsorb and reincorporate the EMAT. Everything goes, nothing remains.

Cheaper Diesel

Obtaining EMAT is very economical. The final price to the consumer could be less than the current price of conventional diesel and would have an additional advantage it would save the precious hard currency that represents such a sacrifice for the country.

For now, tempate cultivation has only one experimental use: obtaining seed to extend planted areas. Studies show that, to satisfy the current national demand for diesel, it would be necessary to plant 400,000 acres with tempate. This area might seem immense, but not when one takes into account that tempate can be cultivated on lands of all types. In the Pacific region alone, Nicaragua has 3.7 million acres of marginal lands. In other words, even if, due to some unimaginable economic miracle, Nicaragua were to multiply its demand for diesel by 10, tempate would still be able to meet that demand by using marginal lands from just one area of the country. Added to all this must be the savings of foreign exchange for fuel, the obtaining of fertilizers and insecticides and, moreover, the production of glycerine as a result of the process of trans esterification.

Thousands of Jobs

The marginalized always survive on marginal lands. If marginal lands begin to have value, it would be normal for the marginal to be marginalized once again, thrown off their revalued lands and relocated on other, useless, lands.

In the case of Nicaraguan tempate an effort is being made to see that this typical situation not be repeated. The goal is to ensure that the cooperatives that cropped up on lands nobody else wanted remain there, planting, harvesting and processing tempate from beginning to end, so that the benefits stay in the hands of the eternally forgotten.

For now, that is happening. There is still little to be shared, but measures are being taken to avoid a situation where things fall apart once there is more to divide. At the moment, it is calculated that, in addition to the permanent jobs the plantations will require, thousands of seasonal jobs will be generated, jobs that could offer a minimum salary of some 16 18 córdobas a day, at the current value. Currently, the average salary in the temperate zones is 7 córdobas daily, and that only for those lucky enough to find work.

Nicaragua in the Lead

Nicaragua is the first country in the world where research on trans esterification of tempate oil is taking place and thus the place where this research is most advanced. At this time, Nicaragua is developing state of the art technology in the sphere of vegetable based fuels, a technology of the future, since the world's petroleum supplies are drying up. Our small and underdeveloped country could even achieve the conditions necessary to export this technology. The machinery to obtain EMAT or biodiesel is already designed and under construction.

By 1996, EMAT could be used massively in the country's vehicles and heavy machinery, according to estimates by the scientists working to develop this technology. To do this, 1,000 hectares of tempate would have to be planted in the area's western region and a processing plant installed, in conjunction with the state petroleum company, PETRONIC.

The foreign exchange savings would be very important. In 1992, Nicaragua spent $20 million on gasoline imports, $43 million on a bunker for generating electricity and, for diesel which could be replaced by EMAT $33 million.

One last detail. What changes or adaptations would have to be made in cars and gas station diesel pumps to begin the distribution and consumption of EMAT or biodiesel? The answer is simple: none. Absolutely nothing would need to be changed.

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