Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Moving towards 2nd Generation Biofuel in Malaysia: Hype, Hope and Promise

Biofuel industry is one of the most burgeoning industries throughout the World, attracting billions of capital investments from different stakeholders. There are currently huge bombardments of propaganda all over the globe in moving towards second generation biofuel. What is second generation biofuel? To speak as a layman, second generation biofuel is basically an advance production of biofuel, which its feedstock comes primarily from non-crop based feedstocks. Current conventional first generation biofuels come from crop based feedstocks such as from corn, palm oil and sugar cane. Second generation biofuel utilizes the most abundant carbon storage feedstocks on Earth, lignocellusic materials which are made up by plants via photosynthetic activity. For examples are grasses, leaves and wooden materials. All of these feedstocks are made available by plants freely and now have become the most promising sustainable feedstocks as they have little pressure on food price and crisis and can be considered environmentally friendly. Third generation biofuel is still new but will not be discussed in this short article (readers are recommended to search about this future technology for more information)

A simple diagram, showing a summary of different category of biofuel that you should know. 

A bit advanced diagram, showing possible products of lignocellulosic feedstocks.

Lignocellulosic materials are made up of lignin, celluloses and hemicelluloses. They are locked up by chemical bonds, but if we manage to break the bonds, several types of simple sugars such as glucose can be produced and could be used for fermentation to produce biobutanol or bioethanol. This is very promising as Nature has given us with several enzymes to degrade these lignocellulosic materials. Yet, due to its high recalcitrant especially for lignin degradation, the process is still inefficient. It is hoped that with current research and development, we will find the right 'bullets' to attack and utilizes these sustainable feedstocks. 

A creative picture, depicting a comprehensive idea of 2nd generation biofuel.

Malaysia is rich in biodiversity, variety of flora and fauna. Most of these flora and fauna are still intact and unexploited. We also have a big problem in managing our agricultural waste feedstock and became of the countries in the World that carries out open burning to clear all the waste materials such as rice straws, palm oils wastes and ects. There is a tremendous amount of resources that is not fully exploited. If we wanted to move on towards 2nd generation biofuel, it is not even a hype if we have the capability, the right tools and technology. Yet, having all of these things alone will not enable our hope towards this ambition to be fruitful as there are other major things that we need to consider especially in term of supports and capital investments. It is hard to convince the investors to put their money in this promising but little progress research and development. Of course, the biggest proportion of investor will come from the government itself. The government plays a critical role to implement the policy and create the human capital. The exact future of this field is not really clear, but the demand and pressure due to increasing oil prices years by years at least have put them to think about this potentiality. At least, now we know that there is a huge investment to bring first generation biofuel into reality. Many researches to fully utilize palm oil wastes are being done yet still we do not see any kind of products sold on the market within these few years. 

The major hurdles in bringing specific biofuel product to the main market are lack of capital investment and cost ineffective. If a company would like to pioneer in this technology, they probably will end up closing the company due to the high cost of production. The only way to overcome this is to find alternative technologies that enable effective and efficient biofuel production or to convince current farmer's interest towards this technology. It is not impossible yet requires a continuous restless effort. Different organizations have to cooperate together, including NGOs, non-profit and government organizations have to sit together and think for the best. 

Imagine a product like this, producing its in large scale requires different groups working together.

To remind, we are a country which has enough and excess feedstocks which is not yet exploited. We have to realize our own capability and able to create new business model and market. If we wanted to move towards mission 2020; ideally assuming our community as entrepreneurial scientists and able to stand on our own, this mission challenges us to think independently, devising our own plan and strategy. Of course the people who will get involved in the process are those who expert in this field. But we cannot deny that this field also requires people who have nothing to do with high-tech industry, especially people who live in rural areas. Creating new industry in this area could mean creating new job opportunities. However, we have to bear in mind that over-development will cause non-sustainable impacts. 

To say whether second generation biofuel is a hype, hope or promise, I will stand to say that this a promise and we need positive hype to convince the people that we do really need this second generation biofuel. We could not deny that the oil price is increasing plus we could even feel the impacts on current economics because we are too dependent on current fossil fuels. The promise is: moving towards second generation biofuel in Malaysia means we will create new forms of the bioeconomy. This promises us with partial or total independence from the volatile of oil and food prices that circulates over the globe. 

To conclude, the increasing of oil price is unstoppable. Where there is a huge demand and lacks of supply of fuels, the oil will increase until it ends up. The only way to preclude this is to replace the current liquid fuel supply with a more sustainable biofuel. The first generation is now beginning to emerge yet second generation is far from reality. To say second generation as impossible promise, is something we need to avoid unless we have other alternatives to replace the conventional liquids fuels or brave enough to replace all of the vehicles on our roads with perhaps hydrogen fuel engines or perhaps we would like to see our next generations just cycling or walking -back to the early ages. I know this is a hype that I made myself. But remember, hype could be used to create hope, pressure and promise to pull any potential interests especially capital investments, particularly from the governments and  private investors. In terms of resources, we have more than enough. Malaysia is not a promised land for us, but it is truly ours. Therefore, we have to use it optimally and take care of it properly. In term of implementation, lots of consideration have to begin now. One of them, the best thing that an individual can make is to start making public engagement and awareness like what I am doing now. I make hype so that this will create hope and promise. 

The best way to start is to speak up loud!

Amin Rukaini Mustafa
Bsc in Biotechnology, Msc in Biotechnology (current student)
The University of Edinburgh, UK.