Oman Sees Date Palms As Future Fuel


Omani entrepreneur Mohammed bin Saif al-Harthy and his associates at the Oman Green Energy Company have come up with a way to transform extracts from the region’s ubiquitous date palm into biofuel.



He knows it works, because he has been using the fuel to run his own car for months.



Now he has a licence from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to set up a $28 million ethanol plant in Oman’s energy centre of Sohar, with a capacity of 900,000 litres a day.



The plant is due to be ready in early 2008 and Harthy hopes to export up to 80 percent of his finished product to meet growing world demand for alternative energy as well as to set up a chain of biofuel filling stations in Oman by 2010.



"I was back in the United States and people were trying to make diesel from cooking oil. I liked the idea and I thought I would give it a try. So that is how it all began," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.



"I’ve been using the fuel in my car with no problems but we need to do a proper study on the full effects and they should be known by 2010. We hope we will be the first in the Arab world."



Independent oil producer Oman exports around 650,000 barrels per day of crude and has been battling to reverse a decline in output since 2001.






Like most Gulf countries that rely heavily on crude exports, Oman has been diversifying its economy before oil supplies dwindle and demand rises for eco-friendly energy sources.



Yet environmental awareness remains low in the Gulf, where people drive petrol-guzzling four-wheel-drives and pay little at the pump.



Harthy hopes to lure motorists away from gasoline by offering even lower prices.



"I believe we are very cheap and can compete with the big firms," he said. "It is cheaper and environmentally friendly. I believe it can help reduce CO2 emissions."



Harthy said around 80,000 date-palms had been allocated for the first phase of the project though he envisaged raising that number to 10 million over the next decade, depending on demand.



The technique, which involves tapping and fermenting glucose-rich sap from trees, would not require palms to be chopped down, though it was not clear how that would produce enough material for such ambitious production targets.



Fears of climate change have boosted research and investment in biofuels, but they have also been blamed for raising the cost of corn, sugar and other foods they compete with for land.



But Harthy said the trees he has tapped over the past nine months have continued to produce fruit, suggesting that if the Omani biofuel project takes off, dates could still be harvested.



"You need to set up wells and irrigation systems for such plantations but date trees do not consume too much water and you can grow a big date palm in four years and transplant it," he said. "In fact, we will not be using any food crops."



Work on the plant, which will be imported from Brazil, will begin this summer, when Harthy and his colleagues plan to drive around the Gulf in date palm-fuelled cars to promote biofuels.



"I believe there is a good future for it," he said.


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