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Latin America's new oil source comes from a tree

A palm tree by the name of Acrocomia is currently keeping a large number of scientists and investors busy. The coming years will show what the palm tree really has to offer. If the tree, which has previously gone virtually unnoticed, is able to live up to these peoples’ expectations, then Latin America will soon benefit from a sustainable oil source.

A palm tree with the Latin name Acrocomia totai Mart. thrives in the territory between Mexico and the north of Argentina. Although it is known that this oleiferous plant can be used for many things, it has previously only attracted limited interest. In scientific terms, there is nothing that would make its cultivation worthwhile. “However, the growing interest in regenerative energies has changed the situation and Acrocomia has suddenly become vitally interesting,” said Dr. Dieter Oberländer.
A photo of Prof. Karlheinz Köller (left) and Dr. Dieter Oberländer (right).
Prof. Karlheinz Köller (left) from the Institute of Process Engineering in Plant Production at Hohenheim University and Dr. Dieter Oberländer (right), project leader in the Steinbeis Transfer Centre at the University of Hohenheim. A pilot project that aims to assess the economic and technical application possibilities of Acrocomia led to Köller and Oberländer’s trip to Latin America. (Photo: Oberländer)
What turns the palm, which grows up to fifteen metres tall and has pinnate leaves, into an energy must are its fruit. Growing tight up to the stem, big bunches of golf ball-sized Acrocomia drupes hang down from the stock of the tree. The yellowish-green drupe contains a nutlike seed which is encased in an extremely hard shell. The inside of the drupe is a yellowish, thready pulp. Oberländer is convinced that this fruit will enable a country such as Paraguay, for example, to become partially independent of its fuel imports and anticipates that the country is able to cover 80 per cent of its current fuel requirements with this plant.

Peeling, cracking, pressing – and then the oil flows

There is still a long road to be travelled before Paraguay becomes totally independent from fuel imports. Small farmers collect the ripe fruit from the ground under the wild palms and take them to a collection station. Once they have got a lorry load of fruit, the farmers take the fruit to factories where the outer shell is removed, the pulp taken away and the nuts cracked. Here commences the most interesting part of the oil production: the pressing of the oil-containing seeds and pulp. At present, a ton of seed oil costs about 1,200 dollars; a ton of pulp oil costs about 350 dollars. The oils are used in food, soap and cosmetics. Occasionally, the less valuable pulp oil is used for the production of simple biodiesel (“to be used at the user’s own risk”). However, Oberländer is sure that biodiesel is the most profitable of all products made from Acrocomia oil.

With a proportion of ten per cent pulp oil and five per cent seed oil, the oil content of Acrocomia is relatively small when compared to other energy plants. But it is the per hectare yield that counts. One hectare of palm trees produces an average of 20 tons of Acrocomia fruit, which results in about three tons of oil per hectare. Only African oil palms achieve higher yields (3.5 to 4.5 tons per hectare). However, the African palm is already domesticated and bred to produce a quantity of oil ten-fold higher than wild plants. The African palm plants are grown over large areas of land. This is not yet the case with Acrocomia. “If we succeed in doubling the Acrocomia yield, then it will be able to outperform the African palms,” hypothesises Oberländer.

Large ventures cost a lot of money

Dr. Dieter Oberländer is an economist. He does not recall exactly how he became interested in Acrocomia, but thinks it must have been a result of his friendly contacts with professors at the University of Hohenheim and through his work for the car manufacturer Daimler which brought him to Argentina, Paraguay and Costa Rica where he spent 15 years. He is the project leader in the Steinbeis Transfer Centre for Agricultural, Environmental and Energy Technology at Hohenheim University where he works hard to establish the use of Acrocomia as a raw material for the production of biodiesel. “Our goal is to make the region as independent as possible from fossil energies,” said Oberländer citing the following reasons: “currency savings, environmental reasons, keeping agriculture up and running, which is today fully dependent from energy imports, in times of supply bottlenecks”. A commendable project. But where will the money for the project come from? The solution is venture capital. Companies that see a great future potential in Acrocomia want to participate in its success by providing financing. In addition, development funds could be another source of money, on condition that small farmers are part of the project.
Drupes of a vital Acrocomia plant in Trinidad.
Drupes of a vital Acrocomia plant in Trinidad. (Photo: Oberländer)
The involvement of farmers is an integral part of the concept. Next year, two pilot plantations will be set up in Latin America, 2000 ha in Argentina and 1000 ha in Paraguay. Small farmers will be able to undertake contract farming and cultivate up to one to two ha each. On behalf of researchers, the farmers involved will experiment with different row distances, varying fertiliser amounts and the cultivation of catch crops.

Research has to focus on many different aspects, meaning that the number of scientific cooperation partners is huge. The following partners are involved in the project: researchers from the University of Hohenheim, including seed researchers, process engineers, tropical scientists and environmental managers, who are working to optimise Acrocomia cultivation, develop the harvest technologies used and assess the environmental and energy efficiency of the palm tree; researchers from the University of Stuttgart working on the optimisation of a processing plant; the Catholic University in Paraguay and the National University of Formosa in Argentina.

Decentralised model of the future

The scientists have plans to cultivate Acrocomia within a radius of 50 km around a factory. Oberländer attaches great importance to the decentralised processing of the fruit in order to save transport costs. In order to further reduce costs, the plantations will in future mainly use machines for the harvest. After pressing pulp and seeds, lorries will transport the oils to the closest biodiesel factory. At present, one single factory is able to produce 3,000 tons of raw biodiesel per year. Paraguay needs 1.2 million tons of diesel to become independent of oil imports.

And what about competition with food production for available cultivation areas? “No problem,” said Oberländer adding that “the palm tree is also used to produce food.” The seed oil is used in the food industry and indirectly also in animal husbandry. After the seed and pulp have been pressed, the remainder (expeller) is used to feed animals and to refine foodstuff in animal production. Oberländer points out another advantage of Acrocomia cultivation: “The establishment of Acrocomia plantations resembles reforestation.” In Paraguay, no more trees can be felled. Over the next few years, the researchers hope to assess the environmental balance associated with Acrocomia usage and what quantities of fossil raw diesel can actually be replaced by Acrocomia.

Source: BioRegio STERN Management GmbH (km) - 15 Oct. 2008
Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/news/latin-america-s-new-oil-source-comes-from-a-tree