Last week, we went on a 1000 kilometre drive from Bintulu, Sarawak to Kundasang, Sabah. The purpose of the drive? To test B10 biodiesel, a new formulation that will replace the current B7 diesel blend that Malaysians are consuming.
Dr. Harrison Lau, Research Head of Biodiesel Tech at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) started our expedition off with a very clear explanation of biodiesel, how it’s made, how it affects engines, the amount of testing that they’ve carried out and much more.
We address some of your potential questions about B10 biodiesel here and will continue to release articles on the topic in the coming weeks.
What’s important to note is this:
- Palm-oil based biodiesel blends have been mandatory in Malaysia. Since 2011/2012, Malaysians have been using blends containing 95% petroleum-derived diesel and 5% palm methyl ester biodiesel (B5 biodiesel). Currently, the nationwide standard is at 93% to 7%.
- Biodiesel is used in nearly every country, including European states, the US, Japan, Australia. South East Asian countries use it too. In fact, Indonesia is already ahead of us with their B20 blend.
- Palm oil-based biodiesel seems to be the best sort. Its higher viscosity makes it more stable and better for engines in the long run. Even the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association says B20 blends made from palm oil work fine with their engines.
Our convoy on this Trans-Borneo expedition consisted of more than a dozen vehicles, including pick-up trucks (Toyota Hilux, Mitsubishi Triton), SUVs (Toyota Fortuner, Mitsubishi Pajero Sport), and even four of actual fuel tankers (Scania 124L 420).
While the 15 pick ups and SUVs were a part of the convoy throughout the journey, the tankers had to be split up as we were cutting through Brunei. The first 2 tankers rolled off the line with us from MPOB’s Sungai Asap Research Station in Belaga to Miri, while the other two joined us for the journey from Sipitang to Kundasang.
After Deputy Minister for Plantation Industries and Commodities, Datuk Datu Nasrun Datu Mansor launched our expedition, we set out towards Miri.
The first day was a wet affair. It rained all day, making the tough Sarawakian roads a lot harder to traverse than normal. Visibility too was poor. Despite the challenges, we arrived in Miri on time and with no problems.
Day 2 began in the carpark beneath our hotel. There, our co-drivers (who worked full time for the MPOB) manually topped up each SUV and pickup truck with B10 biodiesel that we brought along in containers.
By the end of the first day, we had driven more than 350 kilometres. Most of the trucks had barely gone through a fifth of the fuel they were carrying, but it was best to carry out a top up under the shade while we had it.
Before setting off, we did (or rather, didn’t) notice that B10 biodiesel lacked the typical unpleasant smell associated with diesel fumes. When checking with Dr. Harrison and research available online, this was indeed said to be one of biodiesel’s most favourable qualities. So anyone against buying a diesel car because of the smell should really reevaluate their purchase decision when B10 rolls out later in 2017.
The drive through Brunei was a smooth one. It was not an exceptionally long journey, but the sweltering heat did take a toll on us.
A few kilometers into Brunei, we began to see a few gas flaring chimneys in the distance. There was no doubt that we were in oil country. While Malaysia too is heavily dependent on petroleum for energy, we understood the importance of diversifying our energy sources.
As it stands, we’re still a net importer of petroleum. Increasing the amount of domestic biodiesel consumption will certainly aid our economy by
- Diversifying the demand and uses of palm oil
- Reducing our dependence on imported petroleum
- Keeping and increasing the number of jobs that go to Malaysians
As we approached Lawas, things got a little vertical. The pick-ups were all equipped with 5-speed manuals, but rarely did we have to step down to 3rd for the hill climbs. It was pretty apparent that the additional biodiesel content did nothing to hamper performance. In fact, research shows that its comparatively high cetane number makes the fuel easier to combust.
On Saturday, we finally crossed into Sabah. At Sipidan, we liaised with 2 more tankers. Here, a truck carrying close to 2 tonnes of B10 Biodiesel arrived to top all vehicles up.
After filling all vehicles to the brim, we were off for our last stretch of the journey.
What was apparent throughout the journey was just how beautiful the natural landscape of Borneo was. Sure, there were plantations and cities in between, but most of the trip had us cutting through untouched rainforest and mountains. East Malaysia is beautiful if a little underdeveloped. The roads here are suited to 4X4 vehicles, so it’s no surprise that diesel here is king.
We found ourselves wondering what were the environmental consequences of switching to B10 Biodiesel. Thankfully, Dr. Harrison had compiled research to give us a rough idea. Sulphur is virtually absent in biodiesel. As such, substituting regular diesel with biodiesel reduces the formation of acid rain (which forms from the sulphur emissions in regular diesel).
Plus, the lower carbon dioxide emissions resulting from the use of biodiesel is quite tremendous too. To put things into perspective, every tonne of palm oil biodiesel that substitutes regular diesel results in 3 tonnes fewer CO2 emissions.
In fact, one of MPOB’s strongest reasons for increasing the amount of biodiesel is for its greener properties, hence the tagline of our expedition: Go Green, Drive Cleaner.
We also took note of the lack of exhaust fumes. At times, during severe uphill stretches (which became more regular in Sabah), we would often have other road users in similar vehicles overtake us. This gave us an opportunity to compare what was coming out of the tailpipes. As it turned out, our pick ups, with B10 biodiesel, occasionally emitted puffs of white smoke while most other vehicles running B7 biodiesel seemed to have darker smoke emissions when revving heavily.
Dr. Harrison’s explanation as to the presence of white smoke pointed to studies that showed how diesel engines would be cleansed when biodiesel was introduced. Our trucks were transitioning from B7 to B10 biodiesel that week, and the increased biodiesel content may have led to a ‘cleansing’ of the engine.
What’s demonstrably true is that injector deposits contain fewer metallic elements in engines running biodiesel. This directly correlates with biodiesel’s superior lubricity, which reduces wear and tear between metal components in the engine.
The sun sets early in East Malaysia. This was something we learnt the hard way on our final stretch. By 7pm, we were enveloped in darkness on the winding roads that led to Ranau. Thankfully we arrived in Kundasang without a hitch (and in time for dinner too!).
Early on Sunday, we gathered by our vehicles for a demonstration of a cold start. At around 14 degrees Celcius, temperatures were as low as they get in Malaysia. Yet, with a single crank, the engines came to life! This was perhaps B10’s biggest hurdle, as biodiesels are known to be better suited to warmer climates. And yet, our engines started with no fuss.
The tankers on our convoy were parked just a couple of kilometers away from the hotel. The night before, one of the tanker drivers joined our discussion and stated that he certainly felt an improvement in the power delivery of his lorry. His job routinely led him up to Kundasang, but on previous voyages, he would have to engage much lower gear ratios to climb. This time he didn’t have to.
Though we had lost sight of them in the night, it was apparent that the tankers had no problems climbing up Sabah’s mountainous spine. As impressed as we were to see that these behemoths had made it up those twisty B-roads on B10 biodiesel, this was a rather sad moment, as our convoy was to disperse.
We have to say, this 1000 km journey was a truly informative and entertaining one. We got to experience East Malaysia in a way not many get to. Our convoy leader, Mr. Paul Si, showed us the best parts of each town and Dr Harrison’s openness to questions helped us better understand the advantages and the importance of using more palm-based biodiesel for the environment and economy.