Tuesday, July 04, 2006

GOA: "Diesel Priest" Generates Interest

Priest's Enthusiasm For Biodiesel Fuels Interest Among Government, Investors, Car Owners

By Bosco de Souza Eremita

July 3, 2006

PANAJI, India (UCAN) -- In Goa state, Father Inacio Almeida is better known as "the diesel priest" for popularizing the idea of making biofuel from a hardy, easy-to-grow plant.

The Catholic priest has attracted the interest of people ranging from vehicle owners up to the state's chief minister, who see the potential for lower fuel costs, economic returns and long-term sustainability in the face of growing competition for the world's diminishing oil reserves.

Hundreds of people in this former Portuguese enclave on India's western coast are now growing jatropa, a wild plant the Portuguese introduced in the 16th century for fencing, because cattle don't like its smell. The plant can survive on little water.

On June 17, Father Almeida addressed 200 government officials at the state secretariat on the invitation of Chief Minister Pratapsing Rane, who visited the priest's jatropa farm earlier.

According to the priest, a member of the Missionaries of St. Francis Xavier, founded in Goa, the state has 2 million hectares of land unsuitable for other farming on which the plant can be grown. jatropa cultivation would generate jobs in villages and could increase the state's revenue by 5 billion rupees (about US$110 million) in three years, he told the gathering.

The plant grows 1.5-2 meters high with few branches and gives mature seeds from the third year of growth. It continues giving seeds for many years. Ten kilograms of mature seeds can produce three liters of biodiesel, a name used for any vegetable oil that can be substituted for diesel fuel.

After Father Almeida successfully grew the plant and produced biodiesel fuel from its seeds two years ago, he has championed the jatropa plant's potential to reduce the country's dependence on imported oil.

He said he came across the shrub as a fuel-producing plant at an exhibition some years ago, so he planted it on his farm. But the people of Goa already knew about the plant's usefulness, the priest added. "As children, we were familiar with its oil potential because we used to pin its seeds in a row on a broom stick" to use it as a torch at night, he recalled.

Tests on the use of biodiesel have been successful, and Father Almeida coordinated a public demonstration of this last December. In that event a car using biodiesel was driven 500 kilometers from Pune (Poona) in Maharashtra state to Panaji, the Goa capital, 1,910 kilometers southwest of New Delhi.

Meanwhile, engineering students at Poona University have built a prototype of a machine that can produce 10 liters of fuel per hour from the seeds.

The biodiesel demonstration came after Indian President A.P.J Abdul Kalam praised the priest's efforts during the president's Nov. 14 visit to the state. In a nine-point program Kalam proposed for Goa's development, he mentioned the priest's efforts. The president urged people to grow the plant to help reduce India's dependence on oil imports.

Many people in Goa agree. Father Almeida "is like an icon of biodiesel," says Peter Pires, who works at a telephone company. "This is terrific! If we can have our own diesel, it would be great," exclaimed the Catholic layman, who said he spends one-fourth of his income on gasoline.

Petrol and diesel prices have spiraled in recent years. A liter of petrol now costs almost 50 rupees (US$1.13), one of the highest rates in the world.

The prospects of a biodiesel plant becoming commercially successful with government support have prompted several people to cultivate jatropa, taking seeds, saplings and guidance from the priest.

One of them is S. Tamba, an iron-ore mining magnate, who purchased 5,000 saplings from the priest's farm. The planting "makes better sense" in terms of investment, Tamba told UCA News.

Manuel D'Costa, another mining entrepreneur in the state, said he has planted more than 2,000 saplings in mining dumps on an experimental basis. Apart from revitalizing the area, he said, "it has the potential of yielding a valuable byproduct as fuel."

Calling the plant "gold," D'Costa asserted there is "big money" in it. In addition, he continued, it is hardy, does not require any maintenance and serves to prevent soil erosion in mining areas.

Goa's deputy conservator of forests, Rajesh, told UCA News the government cultivated the plant on 10 hectares of land this year.

According to various sources, India imports an estimated 70 percent of its oil requirements, and its oil bill accounts for an estimated 25 percent of the country's import expenditures.
Reproduced by Konkani Catholics with permission from UCAN (www.ucanews.com)

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