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Philippines: The Coconut Cure

Worker wearing facemask.

Workers in Manila often wrap T-shirts across their faces because of the city's severe air pollution.

It's not hard to figure out why the locals in Manila walk around with T-shirts wrapped around their faces. Standing at a busy intersection, you see a cloud of exhaust hovering just above the street. After a few minutes, you can actually taste it on your tongue. My Filipino friend Miles Tuason, a local journalist, describes it this way: "I've noticed that whenever I shampoo my hair, the lather is no longer white but almost gray. That's the amount of pollution that nestles on our heads everyday."

As a reporter and a traveler, I've been to some fairly polluted cities. I've also lived in Los Angeles. But I've never seen anything that comes close to rivaling Manila. During my two-week stay in the Philippines, Miles kept trying to get me to visit one of Manila's many mega-malls. I wasn't interested. I'd tell him, "A mall is a mall anywhere in the world." But near the end of my trip, I was spending hours each day in the city's sprawling indoor shopping centers, often just wandering around. The mall became a temporary oasis from the congestion and pollution outside.

This capital is one of the most densely packed cities in the world, dwarfing notoriously congested urban cores such as Paris, Tokyo and Mexico City. There's no easy fix for all this congestion and pollution. The suggestions of hybrid cars, better mass transit and carpooling elicit chuckles at my optimistic naivete. "Carpool lanes?" my Filipino companions would ask me as if I've lost my mind.

This May, a new Philippine law mandated that all diesel fuel must be mixed with a locally grown biofuel, which could mean goodbye dark clouds of smoke and hello coconuts!

But the Filipinos have something more effective up their sleeve, something that could reduce particulate matter emissions by 20 to 40 percent, according to a recent study from Japan's Nihon University. The Filipinos are turning to an old friend: the much-revered coconut. Here, the coconut is referred to as the tree of life for its many uses, from food and lumber to charcoal. And now, it's a diesel fuel additive. This May, a new Philippine law mandated that all diesel fuel must be mixed with a locally grown biofuel, which could mean goodbye dark clouds of smoke and hello coconuts!

Well, it's not quite so simple.

Under the new law, oil companies are blending diesel fuel with 1 percent refined coconut oil to create "cocobiodiesel." In two years, the requirement bumps the mix up to 2 percent. Studies suggest that an optimum blend would be around 5 percent refined coconut oil. This, researchers say, would have the engine running at maximum efficiency. The Philippine government has begun the project slow largely because of economic reasons; it takes a while to ramp up the program. It's still a new idea, and the Philippine government is watching to see where this goes.

No Silver Bullet

"Right now, the production of coconut won't be able to completely substitute for oil-based fuels," says Raphael Lotilla, the Philippine secretary of energy. "The important point is that we are able to diversify the source of fuel. We will not be dependent on just one source, and held hostage by developments in other parts of the world."

Also, there's only one refinery in the entire country capable of transforming a coconut into usable fuel for a vehicle. The Filipino company Chemrez took a gamble four years ago to build the refinery before the Philippine Biofuels Act was enacted. Right now, Chemrez has a monopoly and the company is starting to reap the financial rewards.

At the Chemrez Plant, the company's chief operating officer, Jun Lau, points to several large tanks and tubes. The insides are pulsating with coconut oil. "It is exactly the type of oil we use for cooking," shouts Lau over the whir of machines.

Smoke belches out the back of a vehicle.

Most of the vehicles on Manila's streets are older vehicles with less efficient engines.

The coconut oil is refined and can then replace or be mixed with diesel fuel. The cocobiodiesel cleans an engine's components and also acts as a lubricant, helping cars run more efficiently, explains Lau. This then cuts down on the amount of fuel a car needs to operate, which in turn cuts down on overall pollutant emissions being generated.

But the effectiveness of cocobiodiesel in powering cars and cleaning clogged engines can vary greatly. The improvement in fuel and car efficiency depends largely on the condition of the engine.

"If it's a brand-new engine, a well-maintained engine, maybe you don't see much improvement in fuel efficiency; maybe you'll see an improvement of 2 to 3 percent," says Dodo Galindo, who is known as the "Father of Biofuel" in the Philippines for his pioneering research on cocobiodiesel. Today, he's the director of the Asian Institute of Petroleum Studies.

But in the Philippines, 90 percent of the cars on the road are older than five years. Galindo says a car like this can see an improvement of 5 to 20 percent, depending on the specific vehicle. (This is an improvement in fuel efficiency, which is different than improvements in reduced emissions.)

Still, cocobiodiesel is not a silver bullet. "You can say this is a drop in the bucket," says Philippine Energy Secretary Lotilla. Even with coconut oil running through Philippine engines, vehicles will still be dependent primarily on old-fashioned gasoline and diesel.

"You can say this is a drop in the bucket," says Philippine Energy Secretary Lotilla. Even with coconut oil running through Philippine engines, vehicles will still be dependent primarily on old-fashioned gasoline and diesel.

Back at the refinery, I decide to take a test ride with the new fuel. Lau pours a bottle of refined coconut oil, liquid-dyed green, into my driver's car, assuring him that it will run like new. "In 15 minutes, you'll see a significant drop in black smoke," says Lau. "You'll notice the response of the car will be more immediate: It will feel more acceleration; it will be a lot stronger."

The driver, Chris Espejo, looks skeptical, as if Lau has just poured snake oil into the tank of his minivan. Espejo uses his van as a car service, typically hauling around paying customers like me.

A few miles after we leave the Chemrez plant, I ask Espejo for his opinion. He says he can feel more power coming from his engine. We drive through downtown Manila, and he gives the van a little extra gas to test out the new fuel. I don't notice any difference, but he says he's happy with the engine's performance, that the pick-up is indeed better. Also, he -- like so many of the Filipinos I've talked to here -- seems thrilled by the idea of helping the environment.

The Tree of Life

My next ride is an hour-long trek in a motorized outrigger canoe, to the island of Inampulugan in the Visayas region of the Central Philippines. I'd been staying on a nearby island in a rustic "resort," which was little more than a hut and a bed with mosquito covering. On Inampulugan, young men scurry up 80-foot trees -- barefoot -- to strip the coconuts. From the looks of things, there appears to be little time left to clean up; shells cover wide patches of grass, making foot travel a wobbly affair.

Coconut grove on a beach.

Coconut trees line the beaches of Inampalugan Island.

Coconut farmer Rudolpho Masa, a 75-year-old, has worked in agriculture all his life. He takes me on a tour of the coconut farm, which is basically a bunch of trees, some modest homes for the workers, and a few coconut storage warehouses, which are no more than large cement floors with corrugated metal roofs. Masa points to a huge pile of coconuts, telling me that of course they're not all going to the fuel refinery. But he smiles and pats me on the shoulder, saying recent price spikes for coconut oil "are very encouraging." He's hopeful that the new biofuels program will help revive a sagging market for coconuts. Masa says farmers are starting to plan long-term now, thinking twice before they cut down their trees to use them for lumber.

"The main thing you have to ask yourself is: If these coconuts were not being used for energy, what else would they be used for?" says Alex Farrell, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group. The basic question confronting many countries that are looking to biofuels from crops is simple: food or fuel?

Unlike corn, coconuts are not a staple crop. And right now, such small quantities of coconuts will be diverted for fuel that it doesn't appear to mean too much for the local food supply.

But when I posed this question to more than a dozen people, from the country's energy secretary on down to the people climbing coconut trees, the "food vs. fuel" question is of little concern. Unlike corn, coconuts are not a staple crop. And right now, such small quantities of coconuts will be diverted for fuel that it doesn't appear to mean too much for the local coconut food supply. That may change someday, but for the coconut industry today, the bottom-line is this: Cocobiodiesel is welcome news. Coconut oil prices are already on the rise, helping revive the tree of life in this once-struggling agricultural sector.

Jason Margolis is a radio reporter for PRI's The World, where he specializes in technology reporting. Listen to his radio report from the Philippines.

Philippines launches biofuel, motorists wait
Read more about the recent biofuel law passed in the Philippines and the response from motorists.

REACTIONS

(anonymous)
That's a good program.