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From tapioca to biofuel

SWEET tea-time treats may soon find their way into your car’s petrol tank — a research team from Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman’s (Utar) Faculty of Engineering and Science is studying the use of cassava, better known as tapioca, and sweet potato in the production of biofuels.

“Rising global crude oil prices has prompted the search for alternative energy sources to reduce the reliance on crude oil, and this has opened up a lot of opportunities worldwide,” says Dr Low Chong Yu, who leads the research team comprising students Lim Syly, Koh Cin Cong and Voon Meng Seap.

Dr Low says unlike fossil fuels which are depleting, biofuels are renewable energy sources, which can not only reduce air pollution and greenhouse effects caused by burning of fossil fuels, but also enable sustainable development that provides employment and improves economy.

Dr Low adds that the development of biofuels in other countries is quite advanced. For instance, ethanol as a biofuel is widely used in gasohol – a mixture of gasoline (petrol) and alcohol – in Brazil, the United States and Thailand.

Although the development and use of biofuels is critical, it remains unpopular in Malaysia — a fact that Utar hopes to change by encouraging its Chemical Engineering students to study the development of biofuels.

“Our studies involve using cassava and sweet potato as raw materials to produce biofuels; through fermentation, they produce ethanol, a type of alcohol,” says Lim.

Koh concurs and says, “Both cassava and sweet potato are rich in starch and suitable for the fermentation process to produce ethanol.”

He adds that ethanol can replace petrol and as it produces less carbon dioxide, it reduces the greenhouse effects.

Furthermore, the country’s tropical climate is conducive for planting these two crops, which grow quickly and have no special cultivation requirements.

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