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the biofuel industry: Local farmers lead the way jis photos
published: Saturday | January 12, 2008

Shelly-Ann Harris, JIS Writer


Farmer Hamilton Minott stands among several pigs on his farm in Mavis Bank, St. Andrew.

To some, they have a reputation of being gluttonous and dirty. To others, they make the most delectable meat suitable for any festive occasion. But who would have guessed that the waste matter of pigs could be used to make gas; gas that, in turn, powers up a stove for cooking. Sounds far-fetched? Well, this is actually how two households in Mavis Bank, St. Andrew, ignite their stove for cooking each evening, by tapping into gas made from pig manure.

This fascinating method of power being derived from natural sources forms part of the worldwide trend to focus on biofuels. Biofuels are from biomass, that is, recently living organisms or their metabolic by-products, such as manure from cows or pigs. They are renewable energy sources, unlike other natural resources, including petroleum and coal. Biofuels such as ethanol (a liquid used to power motor vehicles) can also be derived from sugar cane, starch, cassava and corn.

generating biogas

However, in Mavis Bank, St. Andrew, the focus is on generating one biofuel - biogas - from the waste of pigs. Pig farmers Hamilton and Septimus Minottt have been successfully producing clear 'cooking gas' from these farm animals for almost 20 years. Hamilton Minott shares with JIS how the inventive method works.

"First, you have to dig a pit (about 11 feet in length) and then you have to pack it, dress it, build a digesting system and cylinder and the stuff that come from the pig (manure), you wash it into it and then you have gas in three or four days."

Those three or four days, however, were the waiting period when the apparatus was first set up. Now the biogas coming from the pit is ongoing and consistent.

focus on cooking

Furthermore, Mr. Minott says the unit can also power a lantern system, as well as produce liquid fertiliser for vegetable crops. But currently the focus is on producing biogas specifically for cooking.

The cost to set up the system, which was funded and organised through a government project, ranged from about $25,000 to $30,000. Now almost two decades later, it continues to work well with zero maintenance costs, except for the current need to change the cylinder. And, of course, once the Minott farmers continue to feed their sows, cooking gas could be in endless supply.

These kinds of innovative developments keep president of the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS), Senator Norman Grant, upbeat about the future. In addition to the Minott farm in Mavis Bank, he says other prospects in rural communities are being explored. For example, in St. Thomas, the possibility of using cassava to make biofuel is being examined.

"That is another awesome opportunity. It is a very capital intensive project and, therefore, it could involve a huge investment in funds and very heavy technology, so it's not something that a farmer alone can just go and take on." In fact, developing most of these renewable energy systems require quite a bit of funding, research and planning, especially if local farmers are to benefit.

partnering with gov't

In this regard, Mr. Grant says the JAS is looking to partner with Government to develop a strategy for the way forward. And already Government seems to have a plan for the large-scale production and export of biofuels, ethanol in particular.

Prime Minister Bruce Golding has indicated that prospects for locally produced ethanol await the privatisation of the sugar industry which should be completed by June 2008. He also believes that "there are exciting new possibilities of producing a range of biofuels" from agricultural products "such as castor beans". With Jamaica's enormous and mounting oil bill in mind, Mr. Golding is convinced that as several other countries have done (e.g. Brazil, Colombia, China), "we are going to have to shift our energy strategy towards cheaper sources of fuel . We will have to find ways to produce more of our own energy from our own renewable sources".

Still, while a structured biofuel framework is in the pipeline, steps have already been taken both by Government and the private sector to start producing ethanol from sugar cane. Through partnership with the Brazilian government, Petrojam has been making and exporting ethanol to the United States.

ethanol facility doing well

According to group managing director, Dr. Ruth Potopsingh, the Brazilian government in 2004 helped Petrojam to establish a 40-million gallon ethanol facility and also supplies the feedstock (from sugar cane) needed to create the biofuel. She recently told JIS that the facility is doing "very well" and that plans are on the horizon to increase the amount of ethanol exported to the United States from that facility to 60 million gallons.

Similarly, the Jamaica Broilers Group has seen the fantastic future in ethanol and recently launched a facility for production, with feedstock also coming from Brazil. The plant was opened in August 2007 at a cost of US$20 million.

'struck oil'

In addition to these facilities, plans are in place to construct a 120-million gallon plant in Kingston by early 2008. With these developments on stream locally and the increasing worldwide demand for ethanol, Jamaica has possibly 'struck oil', but only if local farmers get into the loop and start efficiently providing the agricultural products that are needed. Grant, himself a farmer, feels that building a framework is what is critical.

"Look at Nigeria, Nigeria produces oil but a lot of the poor people don't benefit from it, so it is how we ensure that there is a framework that once people work hard, that there is a way for them to get the reward," Senator Grant points out.

In the meantime, while that framework is being developed, local pig farmers Hamilton and Septimus Minott are reaping the rewards of their hard work in Mavis Bank, St. Andrew. Unfortunately, like manure, the gas does carry a slight stench, but visitors to their farm continue to be "surprised and can't believe" the incredible cooking gas system that has been developed from the waste matter of pigs.

This is a special Gleaner feature in partnership with the Jamaica Information Service (JIS).

Pig farmer Hamilton Minott stands alongside the biogas system on his farm in Mavis Bank, St. Andrew.

Linneth Minott, Hamilton's wife, displays how cooking gas from the biogas system is being used to ignite her stove.

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