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Brew your own: Argentina's micro-refinery

Ricardo Carlstein's biodiesel refinery (Luis Biasi)
Ricardo Carlstein's biodiesel refinery
Luis Biasi

The solution to the world's oil crisis, environmental decay and rural poverty says Ricardo Carlstein, Argentine engineer, is his homemade refinery that allows farmers to produce their own biodiesel. Taking advantage of the green fuel revolution, Carlstein's innovative technology is just one of a multitude of ideas from a continent that has come alive with initiatives to reduce dependence on carbon fuels. Argentina and Brazil, Latin America's agricultural superpowers, are blazing the development trail but the rest of the continent is not far behind.

Chile currently imports 72 per cent of its energy resources but recently announced schemes to develop domestic production of biofuels to reduce its dependency. Columbia has just backed a US$180 million biodiesel investment to develop a lucrative export industry to Europe. And despite vast oil reserves, Venezuela is preparing a biodiesel plan linked to small farmers as a means to reduce rural poverty.

Small can be big

Some fear, however, that government-sponsored schemes will kowtow to large commercial interests, who will in turn hijack the green fuel revolution. That's what has inspired Carlstein to invent a technique suitable for smallholders and small businesses, a scheme he pitches as an easy to use, affordable way to produce homemade biodiesel. His philosophy is based on the idea of decentralised production. The agriculture industry consumes just over three quarters of diesel used in Argentina. Enabling farmers to grow, refine and consume their own fuel would eliminate transport costs to centralised plants, stimulate rural economies, reduce oil dependence and benefit the environment. "I want to free people from servitude to oil companies," says Carlstein, "and I want to empower people."

His crushing units will deal with almost any oil based plant, typically soy and sunflower in Argentina, to produce oil for biodiesel, and cake which can be used as animal feed. The oil is fed into 'High Temperature Pressurised' units, that refine with 98 per cent efficiency to produce almost no waste product and, he says, at a cost of no more than US$0.36 cents per litre. Petrol stations in Argentina sell diesel at the government's fixed price of US$0.48 cents per litre.

Two years ago, Luis Biasi purchased one of Carlstein's units for his ecotourism business in southern Argentina. "We make biodiesel to help protect the environment. The economic gain is a convenient by-product," he adds. Biasi collects waste vegetable oil from restaurants, pours it into his "idiot-proof refinery" and feeds the resultant biodiesel to his fleet of nine Land Rovers. The refinery, listed in Carlstein's catalogue at US$3800, produces 80,000 litres of biodiesel a year.

Argentina's new law

In April 2006, Argentina's senate passed an ambitious biofuels law. Five percent of all liquid fuel is to be derived from a renewable source by 2009 and to achieve this, financial incentives will be provided to farmers and businesses entering the biofuels market. "Our priority is to benefit small businesses and the farming market," indicated the head of the energy ministry, Cristian Folgar. He also hopes that a strong biodiesel market will relieve Argentina's domestic diesel shortage, which is threatening the government's artificially low fix on diesel prices.

With most biodiesel to be made from soybean - Argentina is the world's third largest soybean producer - producers estimate they will need to increase planting by ten per cent to meet government targets. Increased cultivation will offset carbon dioxide emissions and the biofuel project could qualify as a clean development initiative under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. However, activists such as Greenpeace are concerned about the impact of increased transgenic soybean cultivation on biodiversity and rural livelihoods.

Jar of homemade canola oil biodiesel with the glycerine layer below (Biodiesel Community)
Jar of homemade canola oil biodiesel with the glycerine layer below
Biodiesel Community

Industry experts calculate that US$284.5 million has been invested into biofuel projects in Argentina over the last 20 months. That figure is set to rise to US$1 billion over the next four years as investors take advantage of the new law.

Rise and fall of Brazil's biofuel

Brazil's success with biofuels is well known. As a result of the oil crisis in 1973 the Brazilian government initiated its "pro alcohol" programme, producing ethanol from fermented sugarcane. Forty percent of Brazil's cars are estimated to run on ethanol or an ethanol/petrol mix. However, the scheme has been more geared to intensive sugarcane farming and has failed to benefit Brazil's small family farms. According to the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute, nearly one million small farms, most of them less than 100 hectares, were forced to close down between 1985 and 1996.

In January 2005, Brazil introduced its National Biodiesel Production and Utilisation Programme (PNPB) which will make it compulsory to add two per cent biodiesel to all diesel fuel in 2008, rising to five per cent in 2013. A key part of the project is to encourage the involvement of family smallholdings to combat rural poverty and, with assistance from state-run oil company Petrobras, produce a viable fuel for rural regions. "The project combines environmental protection with rural development, and reduces social inequality," said President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva recently to the Brazilian press.

By 2010, Brazil intends to double its current ethanol production, while analysts expect biodiesel output to increase four-fold but, as with Argentina, there are concerns over the environmental cost of achieving these bold targets.

Written by: William Surman

Date published: November 2006


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