by Tan Sri Datuk Dr Yusof Basiron
This article appeared in the Malaysian New Straits Times Saturday Forum column dated September 9, 2006
INTRODUCING the new fuel, Envodiesel, will naturally be difficult, especially when it involves distribution for public consumption. Envodiesel is a blend of five per cent fully refined liquid palm oil (RLPO) and 95 per cent petroleum diesel. RLPO without any blending has been used regularly at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) to run its test vehicles.
The thinking behind the Envodiesel project is that if 100 per cent RLPO can run diesel vehicles without trouble, a five-per cent blend of RLPO with 95 per cent petroleum diesel should be fully acceptable.
Envodiesel meets all the parameters of the Malaysian diesel standard. Car engine manufacturers, however, are hesitant to extend their engine warranty when RLPO is used in Envodiesel. They claim that such a component has not been used in the European Union (EU) where the esterified form of vegetable oil, or methyl ester, is used instead.
Petroleum diesel is itself a blend of hundreds of petroleum compounds, mostly hydrocarbons. If each of the individual chemicals were isolated and their properties compared, many of these longer chain hydrocarbon in their pure form would not meet the Malaysian standard specifications for diesel fuel. The trick is in the blend.
The mixture of compounds will naturally help to dissolve one another to give a set of properties that are desired, and in the case of diesel or Envodiesel the final blend meets the stringent Malaysian standard specifications for diesel.
Opposition to Envodiesel may be due to the potential loss of five per cent market share because of substitution by RLPO. Car manufacturers may not welcome a change to the fuel as there is no benefit coming their way whether RLPO or petroleum diesel is used, and any problem will only mean a drop in sales. It must be pointed out, however, that Malaysia regards palm oil as a strategic commodity industry with annual earnings of RM30 billion.
The industry will benefit tremendously through the Envodiesel project as it would use up some 500,000 tonnes of palm oil annually. With the new demand, the palm oil industry will continue to prosper and the benefits will spread to all sectors of the economy.
Those who initially fear that Envodiesel will affect their car or fuel sales will eventually benefit from the expanded economy.
Reduction in the annual import of 500,000 tonnes of diesel because of displacement by five per cent palm oil in the Envodiesel means the country will save more than RM1 billion in foreign exchange each year. Unlike fossil fuel, Envodiesel does not introduce any additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and there is the potential for selling carbon credits from this project.
When rapeseed biodiesel was first introduced, it did not get prior agreement from car manufacturers in the EU. Problems encountered due to variability in the performance of the biodiesel fuel were resolved by introducing the EU standard on biodiesel.
Even till today, the top car brands still discourage new car owners from using biodiesel. It is not an easy task to introduce fuel change, as evidenced even in the EU. Yet, its biodiesel industry has continued its rapid expansion and annual production now is in excess of four million tonnes.
Making the use of Envodiesel mandatory will provide a level playing field for all stakeholders. However, if a choice is given for consumers to have pure diesel against blended Envodiesel, some price incentive for Envodiesel would be needed to ensure it is positioned to gain consumer support. This incentive approach has helped biodiesel to penetrate the diesel market in the EU and the United States.
A point of view advanced by the Automobile Association is to use palm methyl esters as the five per cent component in the Envodiesel blend instead of RLPO.
They argue that the car industry has accepted the use of methyl esters as a diesel equivalent in the EU or US. Why should Malaysia be different and use the un-esterified oil instead?
At this juncture, it is pertinent to point out that the proposed Biofuel Act would probably already provide the possibility of using either palm methyl ester or RLPO, depending on prices.
However, RLPO is currently RM1,000 per tonne cheaper than palm methyl esters. It means that the Government would need to provide RM500 million more in subsidy when methyl esters are used rather than RLPO at a five per cent level, or 500,000 tonnes of RLPO or palm methyl esters projected to be used annually.
Why waste half a billion ringgit of subsidy if it could be avoided by using RLPO in Envodiesel? Why must Envodiesel be approved in EU or Japan first before we can accept its use in Malaysia? Europe or Japan will not be able to use Envodiesel with RLPO as a blend component as it will solidify in their climate.
Trials were conducted to blend diesel with their local oils such as soya bean or rapeseed oil. However, because of their high unsaturation, the oils are highly unstable and will cause polymerisation during combustion, leading to thickening of engine lubricating oils. Palm oil, being highly stable, does not face the polymerisation problem. Malaysia is uniquely positioned to benefit from this superior stability. We have a great opportunity to use our indigenous palm oil as a component in Envodiesel. Throwing away this opportunity because it has not been done elsewhere can be likened to throwing a unique new discovery. We need to take the lead rather than just be followers. The Prime Minister’s office is using a Mercedes diesel car fuelled by Envodiesel. The Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities’ office is using another new vehicle fuelled by Envodiesel. Hundreds of other vehicles are using Envodiesel. These include fleets of the armed forces, Kuala Lumpur City Hall, Public Works Department and the Miri bus companies, which are participating in a voluntary trial. All diesel vehicles of MPOB have been running on various forms of Envodiesel fuel without any problems. It is, therefore, important for stakeholders not to speculate on any potential problems unless they have data to support such claims.