The Institute of Scientific and Technological Research(IRST) has embarked on an ambitious project to produce biodiesel in Rwanda. Researchers at the Institute say that this, in the long run will alleviate rural poverty while at the same time conserving the environment. In an exclusive interview with The New Times’ Paul Ntambara, IRST Director General; Dr Jean Baptiste Nduwayezu gave an insight on how the dream will be realised.
Q. Could you kindly share with our readers the background to this ground breaking biodiesel project?
In March 2007, a team of professors and scientists experienced in the fields of chemistry, biology, physics, applied mechanics and electricity at the Institute met and started a series of laboratory tests on this area.
In the same month, we got the test formula to make biodiesel out of palm oil. After this we continued with other tests to produce biodiesel out of Moringa and Jatropha oil.
We continued our tests and made biodiesel from avocado and Maracuja seeds.
This information helped us to order for machinery from a company in Sweden which manufactures biodiesel processors. The company designed a specific and flexible machine which can produce biodiesel out of a variety of oils from different oil crops grown in Rwanda.
They added another unit which enables us to make biodiesel out of animal fats and used cooking oils from hotels and restaurants.
In April 2007, we immediately made tests on the generator diesel engine, it worked very well, and the electricity generated was amazing.
This was a major breakthrough. The challenge was to have the first vehicle powered by biodiesel on the road and running as demanded by the general public.
In August 2008, we negotiated with Akagera Motors; the General Manager understood the importance of the project in alleviating rural poverty and conserving the environment which is the basis for life. He gave us a brand new double pick-up truck without any modifications.
After getting the pick-up, we started making further tests. In biodiesel literature they say that normally you have to blend fuel up to 30 percent but that data was obtained in Europe and America, in Rwanda we have quite different environmental conditions.
We wanted data that was suitable to our environment that is why we started these tests.
Q. How were these tests conducted?
To make sure that our biodiesel works, we took two extremes, we used 0 percent of diesel-biodiesel mixture which means that it was 100 percent diesel, then we took trips to Kigali –Rusumo, Kigali- Akanyaru, and Kigali- Gisenyi measuring fuel consumption and gas emission.
After, we took back the vehicle to Akagera Motors, they removed the reservoir tank, they cleaned it, replaced the oil filters then we refilled with biodiesel 100 percent and took the same route.
Q. What were the findings from these road tests?
We found out that on 100 kilometres, we used 10.4 litres of diesel and 10.7 litres of biodiesel; there was a difference of 0.3 litres per 100Kms.
The difference is mainly attributed to the fact that when we were conducting the Kigali-Akanyaru trip, we made several stopovers because of the traffic police. This affected fuel consumption.
The difference of 0.3 litres per 100 kilometres is not very significant; the fuel consumption is almost the same.
On gas emission, we tracked the output of the poisonous gas; carbon monoxide, we found out that using 100 percent biodiesel, carbon monoxide emission was reduced by 48 percent which is in conformity with other research findings around the world that whenever they used biodiesel 100 percent, carbon monoxide emission was reduced by between 43 and 50 percent.
So the Rwandan biodiesel is reaching 48 percent in terms of curbing output of harmful gases which is very good news. This is attributed to the fact that our machines were programmed to produce biodiesel that meets international standards that is why we are very serious about controlling the quality of the raw oil and the quality of the biodiesel that is produced.
Q. What is the production capacity of these machines?
They have the capacity to produce 2000 litres per day, currently we are producing less than that because of power problems and lack of enough raw materials but we are thankful to government for easing procurement procedures and waiving tax on the importation of these raw materials.
The problem of power shortage will be solved in December when our biodiesel generator arrives in the Country, it will make us independent and we will be able to work in shifts.
Q. Talking about raw materials, there is a danger of feeding the biodiesel industry at the expense of human consumption, what is your take on this?
Such fears should not arise; first, we have a good supply of palm oil from neighbouring Countries. Secondly we have plenty of Jatropha plant growing in Bugarama, Eastern Province.
The plant is not eaten by animals and the oil produced cannot be consumed by human beings, the other good thing is that this plant can perform even on degraded lands.
Q. How do you plan to bring the private sector on board because you cannot implement a project of this magnitude all alone?
We want to establish a joint public –private biodiesel company in which IRST will be having majority shares but this does not stop other members of the private sector from establishing their own companies, IRST will be there to give technical assistance.
We want our country to be a centre of excellence in biodiesel production; we will be assisting whoever is interested in biodiesel production to produce biodiesel that meets international standards by controlling the quality of the raw oil and the quality of the biodiesel produced.
Q. Could you estimate the amount of investment needed to ensure the success of the project
To equip our laboratory, we need equipment which will cost about €500 000, we have already identified the equipment.
When we were preparing a business plan, we found out that the Country can be self reliant in biodiesel production, what we need is 225 000 hectares of land and this is available.
Q. When should Rwandans expect to see a biodiesel powered public transport bus on the road?
In a few months, we are processing insurance cover for the bus and also working on recruiting a driver, we will start operations as soon as all documents are in place.
We will conduct a Country tour to advertise our bus before we start plying the Kigali Bujumbura route.
The Institute of Scientific and Technological Research and the University of Bujumbura have signed a memorandum of understanding where students and professors from the University and other Universities in Rwanda and Uganda will start working on data collection when the bus begins operation.
There is a set of data that we need to collect which will be useful to our private sector who want to invest in biodiesel industry.
Q. Your parting shot
We are grateful to government for the support in buying these biodiesel processors, building laboratories; it is encouraging for scientists.
We are happy to do our research and contribute to the development of this Country.
With government’s support, we are building a three storey central laboratory complex that is estimated to cost about Rwf850million. This is a strong boost to our research efforts.