In Vanuatu, a proving ground for coconut oil as an alternative fuel

Entrepreneur Tony Deamer shows that pure coconut oil can be used as an alternative to petroleum in automotive diesel engines. The result is an environmentally friendly fuel that might also help the local economy.

PORT VILA, Vanuatu -- Rounding a corner and heading up a steep hill outside the capital city of this lush South Pacific island nation, Tony Deamer stomped on the gas pedal of his Range Rover -- but didn't downshift.

With nary a sputter or a cough, the vehicle -- modified to run on coconut oil instead of diesel fuel -- took the incline in stride.

"Coconut oil is a bit more torquey, because it burns slower," said Mr. Deamer, a 52-year-old Australian-born motor mechanic. "Normally, I'd have to shift down into first here, but with coconut oil, I can keep it in second gear."

Spending time with Mr. Deamer is an extended lesson in the benefits of coconut oil over petroleum. Among the other advantages: it doesn't make black smoke, it is less costly (at least in the South Pacific), it has the potential to stimulate employment among local coconut growers, and, perhaps most importantly for the world at large, it is an environmentally friendly fuel.

And, by the way, cars burning it can be fun to drive.

In what could prove to be a boon for both the environment and cash-strapped South Pacific islands, Mr. Deamer has succeeded in proving that automotive diesel engines, with very little modification, can run safely on coconut oil. The discovery has huge potential for island nations like Vanuatu where the cost of imported oil is a heavy burden on the economy.

Late last year, some 200 mini-buses here were using a coconut oil/diesel mix on a daily basis, proving the concept. A recent change in Government tax laws has had the unintended consequence of temporarily raising the price of coconut oil/diesel mixtures -- but many mini-bus drivers are still using the fuel, even if they have to mix it themselves.

Mr. Deamer himself continues to operate about a dozen vehicles on a pure coconut oil fuel, which is not subject to the new excise tax on petroleum mixtures. Now, he and another local coconut fuel producer are working with the Government to change the excise tax and/or to explore alternatives, such as mixing coconut oil with alcohol or converting more vehicles to run on the pure stuff.

"One way or the other, we are going ahead with this," said Mr. Deamer, with the gung-ho enthusiasm that has made him the driving force in winning wide acceptance for coconut oil fuels here.

Indeed, it seems hard to find anyone of prominence in this small port city who doesn't know of Mr. Deamer -- and of his work at promoting coconut fuel.

"He's been talking about this for a few years," said Marc Neil-Jones, publisher and managing director of Vanuatu Trading Post and Pacific Weekly Review. "But people's interest has shot up since he started running a few cars on it.

"Coconuts are a huge commodity around the world," added Mr. Neil-Jones. "Here, for example, the copra industry is having major problems at the moment and the government is shoring up the price and it is costing a fortune. So the possibility of using coconut oil as a fuel has the potential to really help the rural people."

Helping the rural population is, in fact, a main goal of Mr. Deamer's project, which he sees as an extension of his commitment to the promotion of social and economic development -- a commitment that stems from his practice of the Bahá'í Faith.

"This is not a commercial venture," said Mr. Deamer, explaining that the entire project stems instead from his desire to help his fellow citizens -- and the world at large.

Mr. Deamer believes that if coconut oil fuel is widely accepted, it will increase the local demand for copra -- the dried coconut meat that is a major, albeit low-priced, commodity on world markets. Such an increase in demand would provide jobs and money for rural villagers in Vanuatu, where cutting copra has been the major source of outside income. This, he believes, will help to stem the tide of villagers who have fled idle copra plantations to urban areas.

"If coconut oil does become a significant substitute for diesel fuel, then the local copra price will be less influenced by the world market price of coconut oil," said Mr. Deamer. "Instead, it will have a floor price determined by its relative value as a fuel and the world price of diesel fuel."

"A higher local price is likely to bring about an increase in local copra production. And more people cutting copra will mean more money in the outer islands," he said, referring to the network of islands that surround the main island of Éfaté, where Port-Vila is located.

Formerly known as the New Hebrides, Vanuatu is a collection of some 80 islands located about 2,100 kilometers northeast of Sydney, Australia. The island chain was made famous by James Michener's World War II novel, Tales of the South Pacific.

The country's chief exports are agricultural: copra, kava, beef, cocoa, timber, and coffee. The population of some 200,000 people is more than 94 percent indigenous Melanesian, and some 80 percent live in rural areas. The per capita income is about US$1,200 a year.

"For every ton of diesel fuel that we can offset, we can put back some $200 into the local economy. And at those prices, people could earn a very good living cutting copra," said Mr. Deamer.

Government officials agree that the project has great potential.

"This is really a great idea," said Leo Moli, head of the energy unit within the Vanuatu Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources. "Because it goes all the way back to the farmers who plant and cut coconut. And, if it succeeds, there will be a reduction in the importation of fossil fuels, especially diesel fuel. And this is important."

Mr. Moli said the energy department plans to begin operating two of its vehicles on Deamer's coconut oil fuel, as one way of supporting the project.

Sela Molisa, the Minister of Finance and Economic Management, agrees that using coconut oil to fuel automobiles could indeed reduce the need for imported oil. "On a yearly basis, we import around US$10 million in fuel," said Mr. Molisa. "That's a lot of money for us. And I am pretty sure that at least half of that could be replaced by coconut oil."

Mr. Molisa said the country has plenty of capacity to produce more copra. He said a fall in prices for copra on international markets has reduced Vanuatu's annual harvest from a peak of some 45,000 tons in the 1970s and 1980s to about 30,000 to 40,000 tons currently. "Vanuatu can at present produce at least 50,000 tons."

The economic impact can be amplified if the coconut by-products are also used, Mr. Deamer said. The spent coconut meal makes excellent cattle feed, coconut shells can be made into high quality activated charcoal, and coconut fibers have many important uses.

The key to the entire project was proving that ordinary automotive diesel engines can run reliably on coconut oil.

"Tony has done groundbreaking work to show that coconut oil will work in automotive diesels without any major modification," said Rodney Newell, president of Renereltech, a small Vanuatu-based company that focuses on helping local businesses develop renewable energy.

"Vegetable oils are being used in other parts of the world in diesel engines," said Mr. Newell. "But this is a unique project in that neat coconut oil is being used. This is a first for the Pacific area."

Using coconut oil for fuel has several inherent problems. First, it tends to be thicker -- more viscous -- than other fuels. The unprocessed oil also usually contains more water and impurities than other alternatives.

Mr. Deamer has experimented extensively and solved many of these problems. He has developed a small and inexpensive pre-heater that lowers the viscosity of the oil before it enters the engine. And he has also worked with another local fuel distributor to develop filtration techniques to remove water and impurities.

Unlike many entrepreneurs, Mr. Deamer has been willing to share his findings widely, giving information to all concerned, even potential competitors.

"Tony is not doing it for money," said Dick Eade, a New Zealander who has a pineapple plantation here. "He is just doing it because it will save the country money. He has community spirit."

Nevertheless, Mr. Deamer has taken an entirely professional approach to the promotion of coconut oil fuel. He has lined up a number of investors so that he can purchase the kinds of filters and equipment to properly process raw coconut oil into refined automotive fuel.

Trained as a mechanic, Mr. Deamer came to Vanuatu from Australia in 1971. As a Bahá'í, he sought to promote social and economic development, residing first on the outer island of Tanna, working as a mechanic for the public works department there. In 1981, he relocated to Port Vila, first working for the Ministry of Education and then establishing his own automobile rental and repair business.

That enterprise has provided a good living for Mr. Deamer -- and a platform on which to experiment with alternative fuels. He has converted many of his rental cars to run on coconut oil, tinkering with the pre-heaters until they ran smoothly.

In his mind, everything he does stems from Bahá'í principles. In his business, he has hired and trained a number of female motor mechanics, a move that stems from his belief in the Bahá'í ideal of equality between women and men.

"Work in the service of humanity is service to God," said Mr. Deamer. "That is the driving force of what I am trying to do, to leave behind something of value to Vanuatu, instead of just to Tony Deamer."

Disinclined to talk too much about himself, Mr. Deamer soon switched back to a discussion of the advantages of coconut oil fuel.

"One of the reasons I like using coconut oil instead of diesel fuel is you are putting back into the atmosphere the same carbon dioxide that the tree took out a year ago," said Mr. Deamer. "It's completely sustainable. Coconut trees are very efficient carbon absorbers.

"And coconut oil is also non-toxic," Mr. Deamer added. "What other Pacific fuel can you cook your fish and chips in and run your truck on?"