Nairobi — The prevailing high cost of fossil diesel in Kenya has spurred renewed interest in biodiesel as an alternative source of energy.
Private sector firms and organisations have upped the stakes in producing biodiesel from methyl ester, a vegetable-based derivative obtained from jetropha, croton, palm oil and coconut among other plants.
Interest in biodiesel globally has been attributed to its non-offensive exhaust fumes. The fuel does not cause irritation in the eyes and is environmentally friendly and more biodegradable.
The rising cost of petroleum products and electricity has created an immediate need for new thinking towards alternative fuels. Biodiesel can be used in any diesel engines in the same way as conventional diesel fuel.
Energy for Sustainable Development Africa (ESDA), an interest group, reckons that interest in biodiesel is riding on the back of the high cost of diesel (automotive gas oil) as a result of the high cost of oil products globally.
"In the past, use of plant oils as a substitute for diesel was not encouraging as automotive gas oil was cheap," says Mr Stephen Mutimba, ESDA's project coordinator.
"There is increasing concern on emissions emanating from oil pollution."
Mr Mutimba says production of bio-fuel crops can be restricted to marginal lands in Kenya to complement food production, generate income and enhance food security.
Bio-Energy Utilities, an organisation focusing on renewable technologies, is spearheading efforts for farmers in rural areas to grow crops that produce biodiesel.
Acting as a link, Bio-Energy Utilities is also working with interested partners to have technology for processing crops that produce methyl ester.
"Bio-Energy is collaborating with stakeholders using a bottom-up approach starting with farmers. We are discussing with various donors to fund the undertaking as there is a ready market for biodiesel," says the Programme Officer, Mr Bernard Muchiri.
Bio-Energy research shows crops that produce methyl ester can grow in Kajiado, Makueni, Kitui, western and coastal areas of the country, among others.
A demonstration held recently in Nairobi showed biodiesel processed from croton, jetropha, sunflower and avocado successfully run a posho mill provided by Bhatt Electro Machinery & Tools.
The demonstration was supported by the Ministry of Energy and the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI).
ESDA said rapeseed (Brassica Napus), or canola, produces about 2,000 pounds of seed per acre, yielding about 100 gallons of vegetable oil for fuel and 1,200 pounds of high-protein meal (seedcake) that can be used for livestock feed or as an organic fertiliser.
The seedcake could also be used to make ethanol, and so could the several tons of crop waste. Yields from soybeans are about 60 gallons per acre, while coconuts can produce over 200 gallons per acre.
More than 500 gallons per acre can be obtained from oil palms, while other plants yielding diesel include jetropha, croton and neem.
ESDA says biodiesel is a much better lubricant than conventional diesel and extends engine life. A truck from German won an entry in the Guinness Book of Records by travelling more than 1.25 million kilometres (780,000 miles) on biodiesel with its original engine.
Biodiesel is recognised by both the US Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy as an alternative fuel, and qualifies for mandated programmes under the Clean Air Act Amendments and the Environmental Protection Act of 1992.
In California, biodiesel has been approved for use in remediation of petroleum oil spills. Biodiesel is widely used in Europe, while Germany has more than 1,500 filling stations selling biodiesel at the pump.
France is the world's largest producer. All French diesel fuel contains between two per cent and five per cent biodiesel, and this will soon apply to the whole of Europe.