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Cassava and the Future of Thailand

Companies from the US, Europe and elsewhere are racing toward commercial-scale production of biofuels that utilize a variety of new technologies and processes. This is excellent news for those interested in the growth of clean, renewable fuels. However, as companies scale up, they face the challenge of securing long-term supplies of affordable feedstock in quantities that are beyond what many regions can guarantee. The country of Thailand, already one of the world’s leading agri-food exporters, believes it can attract investment in the advanced biofuel sector by providing a solution to this problem. And for Thailand, a major part of the solution is cassava.

Efficiency of cassava as a feedstock

Cassava, a tuber cultivated widely in tropical and sub-tropical regions, is currently one of the world’s most cost-efficient biofuel feedstocks. A recently published article in the African Journal of Biotechnology found that cassava is more efficient compared to other energy crops, such as sugar cane, sweet sorghum, corn and wheat. One hectare of farm land cultivated with cassava is able to produce on average 6,000 kg of ethanol. The closest competitor in terms of efficiency is sugar cane, which can produce 4,900 kg of ethanol annually per hectare (sugarcane is Thailand’s second major feedstock). Ethanol made from cassava costs $0.68/L while molasses-based varieties were $0.87/L. Of course, both feedstocks beat out corn in terms of efficiency: one hectare of corn only produces 2,050 kg of ethanol per year, a little over a third of the same area as cassava.

Production and export potential in Thailand

Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of raw cassava. Due to Thailand’s strength in the cultivation of this crop, twenty-five of Thailand’s thirty-six ethanol facilities utilize cassava as a feed stock. The potential for ramping up production is enormous. Production in Thailand only reached 1.72 million liters per day in 2009, but the Thai Board of Investment estimates that Thailand has the capacity to produce 7.3 million liters of cassava-derived ethanol per day.

One of the primary challengers to Thailand in the East Asian biofuels market is Brazil, the world’s largest ethanol producer. Thailand commands lower transportation costs, giving it a $0.03/L advantage in Asia over Brazil. In terms of production costs, ethanol produced from Thai cassava ($0.26/L) is cheaper than ethanol produced from US corn ($0.27/L), Australian sugar cane ($0.33/L) or EU sweet sorghum ($0.51/L).

Challenges to cassava cultivation

Cassava cultivation in Thailand was threatened this year after an infestation of aphids, a destructive species of small sap-sucking insects. From 2009 to 2010, ethanol produced from cassava fell from 1.72 million liters a day to just 0.75 million liters a day. However, the Thai government has taken steps to combat the infestation which caused the production drop. A group of Thai scientists and their commercial partners have introduced wasps, which are natural predators of aphids, to help quell the infestation without the use of harsh pesticides. So far the wasps have proved effective and the Thai government predicts that ethanol production from cassava will recover within the next two to three years.

Cassava and other bio-based industries

The recovery of cassava cultivation will prove to be important over the next several years as Thailand is also seeking to increase the production of value-added bio-based products. For example, PPT Aromatics, a large Thai petroleum refining company, has announced that it will invest over $150 million dollars into the construction of a new jet biofuels facility. The new facility will be unique in that it will be the first to produce bio-based aviation fuel that will meet new European regulations set to come into force in 2012. Furthermore, two bioplastics firms, the Italian Novamont SpA and US-based NatureWorks LLC, are both eyeing Thailand as the site for future manufacturing facilities.

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