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Coconut Crude
Ethan Zuckerman, 22 Sep 05

CoconutCrude1.jpgPrice of gasoline got you down? If you're driving a diesel vehicle in the South Pacific, you may be in luck. Vanuatan entrepreneur Tony Deamer has adapted his fleet of rental cars to run on coconut oil, a plentiful local commodity. Unlike with many biofuels, coconut oil doens't need to be transesterized - mixed with sodium hydroxide and alcohol to change its chemical composition - to run in a diesel engine. Filtered and warmed to temperatures about 25C, coconut oil is a better than satisfactory substitute for "mineral diesel" - it burns more slowly, which produces more even pressure on engine pistons, reducing engine wear, and lubricates the engine more effectively. Deamer runs most of his vehicles on a mixture of 85% coconut oil and 15% kerosene, but has demonstrated that modified diesel engines run filtered coconut oil quite happily.

Even before recent price increases, diesel fuel was extremely expensive in the South Pacific due to the cost of shipping fuel from refineries. Coconut oil, on the other hand, is comparatively cheap - produced locally by boiling copra (dried coconut flesh) in water, it retails on the world market for $0.55 a liter, as compared to significantly higher prices for mineral diesel. Used as a basic ingredient in margarine and in cosmetics, copra prices tend to fluctuate widely, destabilizing economies like Vanuatu's which are heavily dependent on copra exports. An increased use of copra to produce fuel oils would likely raise copra prices and benefit local economies, as well as reducing the costs of imported fuels.

SOPAC - the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission, based in Fiji, is funding projects to study the use of coconut oil for power generation and transportation - their introductory paper is a useful overview of efforts thus far to utilize this promising biofuel. UNDP's Equator Initiative also has an excellent case on "Coconut Crude", focusing in part on Tony Deamer's work.

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I knew that car that the Professor invented on Gilligan's Island wasn't so far fetched.

Posted by: Jon on 22 Sep 05

Another adventage to this:

Downtown would smell really, really yummy.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 22 Sep 05

This technology has been around for many years. You can modify any diesel engine to run on any kind of vegetable oil. If the average temperatures are high enough - as they are in the South Pacific - you don't need any modifications at all.

Biodiesel, on the other hand, is made from vegetable oil but doesn't require engine modifications.

Posted by: Brian on 22 Sep 05

There's this Oil From Algae yahoogroup at, you guessed it,

There's talk about setting up a "distributed research" study: share the methods, work at home, share the results.

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 23 Sep 05

I sometimes worry about cash crop mentalities in the developing world though. It seems that island ecologies might be badly skewed if well meaning but short sighted governments in the Pacific start heavily subsidizing farmers to grow coconut palms to the exclusion of all else.

I applaud it if leads to some level of self-sufficiency but I wonder if we might see a repeat of all the failures of previous cash crop fads that swept the developing world in decades past--peanuts, coffee, bananas, etc.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 23 Sep 05

Why would there have to be subsidies? As a locally grown/locally consumed product, this class of bio-fuels presents a local solution to a local problem. Dependence of petroleum based fuels is not going to go away at ay near term point. This is a method of providing power, transposrtation, and jobs to local economy with minimal impact on the environment, at a minimal cost to the local customers.

Best regards....

Posted by: Bob Sheaves on 23 Sep 05

Coconut Crop yields 287 Gallons of fuel per 1 acre crop. Corn Oil yields only 18 Gallons per crop.


From a business point of view - if I was going to start a farm to make biodiesel, this would be the clear winner.

Posted by: Kris on 23 Sep 05

Engineers, attention please:

It is said that the Philippines counts over 7200
islands, of which only 2200 are inhabited. According to satelite info, Indonesia consists of 18,108 islands, of which a mere 6000 are inhabited.

This means that, roughly speaking, there are a whopping 17,000 "uninhabited" islands in this region (seventeen thousand)! While many of those are probably just rock or sand or reef, I'm sure several thousands of those have a huge number of coconut trees. Probably nobody's harvesting the coconuts (as an individual farmer, it's not worth it sailing out to a remote island to go and get a few nuts).

So engineers, if only you could come up with some kind of GPS-activated, automated, solar-bio-cocopowered robo-harvesting-boat-ship-robot to go fetch the nuts, you could become famous and powerful and rich.

Maybe someone could just do the effort of hanging cheap nets under these trees (so that they don't drift into the sea) and go pick up the nuts later.

Just imagine it: seventeen thousand uninhabited islands!

Posted by: Lorenzo on 23 Sep 05

I for one welcome our coconut-harvesting robot masters.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 23 Sep 05

The reason america uses corn so much is as a grass its rather easy to grow.. yes its a grass folks.

Genetic work and breeding have improved yeilds of oil and such immensely over the years and likely for biofuels production they will use a new breed designed to max out oil production.

If you dont need sugar content or taste im sure oil production characteristsics can be pumped up quite high.

Posted by: wintermane on 23 Sep 05

The main issue with biofuels is do we have enough farmable land and enough water and such to grow a useful amount while feeding ourselves as well?

And can we do that after the worst of the climate change has occured?

Posted by: wintermane on 24 Sep 05

Burning more corn or coconuts and less fossil fuel is an answer to the wrong question. The right question is how do we move away from oxidation as our primary source of energy? This fascination with burning things has to cease if we want to make any forward progress out of the mess that Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Peabody left us in.

Posted by: fp on 24 Sep 05

As a South Pacific man, born in PNG, I felt really good about this!

Go, Vanuatu! Go, wantok!

Posted by: Wesley Parish on 25 Sep 05

i am aware of an oil fired power station in the UK that is now able to burn coconut oil, maintaining (and recently surpassing) output levels obtained by burning crude oil (1250 MW).

This is happening 'now', but cannot be publicly announced, due to the lack of controls in which the oil is harvested.

ItÂ’s a shame the corporation, that is pioneering this effort in renewable resources (and others including Greenpeace approved off-shore wind farms), is unable to control the farming methods for this energy source.

Currently the cost of choosing this alternative source over conventional methods is negligable, requiring little modification (and therefore cost) to the existing infrastructure.

Why is it that even though they are no longer being tied to a handful of sources (Saudi, m eastern, Texan) they are unable to accept their corporate responsibly and still utilise this coconut oil at a competitive price?

Posted by: ds on 27 Sep 05

What I want to know is, can I buy bottles of Hawaiian Tropic Suntan oil cheap at the end of the season and just run my car on that? Mmmmmm, suntanny goodness.

Seriously, thank you for the interesting facts. I think if you can run your car on anything besides conventional gas, it's a good thing for everyone. Especially the coconut-harvesting robot masters.

Posted by: Jen on 28 Sep 05

I lived in the Marhsall Islands for a year, and some companies there run diesel trucks on 100 percent coconut oil and have been doing so for over three years (as it never gets below coconut oil's freezing point, there is no need for any engine modification).

As a second point, I wanted to respond to an earlier post...

"Posted by: fp at September 24, 2005 05:48 PM

Burning more corn or coconuts and less fossil fuel is an answer to the wrong question. The right question is how do we move away from oxidation as our primary source of energy? This fascination with burning things has to cease if we want to make any forward progress out of the mess that Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Peabody left us in."

Many people, including my father who is sometimes called to speak on tv about energy, believe that burning any fuel releases CO2 into the atmosphere and increases net atmospheric CO2. The advantage of burning biofuels is that the CO2 released was in the atmosphere before the plant source used it to make carbohydrates (in the case of corn or sugar ethanol) or oil (in the case of coconuts or vegi oils). Burning biofuels leaves no NET increase in CO2. Burning fosil fuels, you are releasing CO2 from the ground into the atmosphere, increasing net CO2 in the atmosphere.

Posted by: Jesse Cameron on 23 Oct 05



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