In a small factory in Kampong Speu province, some 30 kilometers south of Phnom Penh, hundreds of barrels of jatropha oil are ready to be turned into bio-diesel. Elliptical-shaped machines prepare to refine the raw jatropha oil.
Since mid-October, 2009, a joint venture company between Cambodia and Japana, NCT Jacam Energy, has been producing bio-diesel from jatropha, a hardy plant that grows on marginal land. The company is ready to expand.
“Now we produce 100 liters of bio-diesel from jatropha grain each day,” Mitagi Masaru, executive director for the company, told VOA Khmer. “Starting from early March, we will increase our production to 500 liters per day. So in total we will produce 600 liters of bio-diesel per day.”
The bio-diesel is locally produced and locally consumed, Masaru said. Once production outstrips local demand, the company will look to export.
The bio-diesel produced here, in the first facility of its kind in Cambodia, is sold to markets in Kampong Speu and Kandal provinces, where it costs 3,000 riel, about $0.75, per liter, which is 400 riel to 500 riel cheaper than regular diesel.
Masaru said his company will need between 1.5 tons and 2 tons of jatropha grain to meet its production goals. That need could expand tenfold, he said, as the company looks to increase production in the next few years.
Jacam Energy does not grow its own jatropha and relies on outside suppliers. A liter of bio-diesel takes 3 kilograms or 4 kilograms of jatropha, at a cost of 500 riel to 1,000 riel per kilogram for the plant grains.
Sat Samy, secretary of state for the Ministry of Mines and Energy, said he hadn’t received any information on bio-diesel production, but he encouraged Jacam Energy to continue.
Greater production would mean more jobs and better incomes for people, he said.
Bio-diesel has been touted by various countries as a means to improve the environment and reduce global warming. Fuel produced from jatropha falls behind bio-diesel made from cassava.
Jacam Energy has invested some $400,000 in refining its fuel, following three years of research and development. Another $100,000 will be added to increase production, said Chheuy sophors, director of the company, which is 51 percent Cambodian owned.
However, he said, the company is facing a shortage of jatropha grain, which threatens the company’s vision.
“We don’t have enough raw material for daily production,” he said. “So we are worried about our business’s sustainability. We call for all farmers to sell their jatropha grain to us. We will buy it.”
Jatropha can also be purchased from Burma, he said.
More than 10 companies have invested in jatropha plantations. They come from China, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
However, farmers have so far not been impressed with the plant or the market for it. Few grow it now, and some have even destroyed their own crops.
“No one came to do a contract with us,” Song Thon, a grower who hadjoined with a Taiwanese company to grow jatropha, said. “So I decided to grow other crops, like corn, sesame and rice.”
Sat Samy suggested that companies with a clear goal to produce bio-diesel should make contracts with farmers to help encourage confidence and push the development of the fuel.