The Palm Scribe

Indonesia Still Needs a Champion to Reach Energy Self-Sufficiency

Indonesia already possesses the necessary, natural and human resources as well as mastery of technology to fully meet its carbon emission commitment and become sovereign in the energy field, but still lack a strong champion who can mobilize all national resources and strength to reach those goals, a researcher said.

A professor at the Industrial Technology Faculty of the leading Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), Subagjo who has been engaging in the development of catalyst technology since the early 1980s, is not only rich in experience in his own specific field but also in the aspect of building up the synergy and cooperation between the academic and business world that is so crucial for the development of the industry.

“The hope is that later, there will someone who can mobilize all the existing potentials in Indonesia,” Subagjo told The Palm Scribe in a recent interview about the need of a champion.

He said that Indonesia was not short of resources, be that raw material or human capacities, but there was a need for a leadership role to be filled, that will be able to mobilize and coordinate all existing national resources and take the nation to reach self-sufficiency, first in catalyst products and later in vegetable fuels, gasoline or diesel oil, that are much more environmentally friendly compared to their hydrocarbon counterparts.

Subagjo cited as examples of where efforts still needed to be devoted, were the need for innovation in catalysts and its processing technology, and in the design of plants that can produce biohydrocarbon fuels, mixtures of vegetal fuels and fossil fuels, or even 100 percent vegetal fuels.

Even though his catalyst laboratory had already received the visit of 11 ministers so far, a fantastic number for research institutions, there was yet no champion who can unite all national resources in the efforts to develop the catalyst industry and also the biohydrocarbon industry that the country really needs.

He stressed that in the development of both industries, of paramount importance was the role of the industry – in this case, large corporations – because only they had the facilities to conduct tests on a pilot or commercial scale. As future users of the products of the researches, the industry is also in a position to provide the necessary inputs for any improvement, both in product and regarding the production process.

“For us here, the scale is at a laboratory scale, using only a few grams of catalysts. For the test at the pilot or commercial scales, much bigger equipment is necessary and these are only possessed by industries such as Pertamina, Pupuk Kujang and others,” he said.

He said that the role of state-owned enterprises such as the two cited earlier was crucial in the development of catalysts and the “Red-and-White” technological process label which covers a number of industrial catalysts and technological processes developed and produced in Indonesia.

Catalysts are chemical components that allow an acceleration of chemical reaction processes by multiple times and they are essential components in such processes. Without catalysts, the process of chemical reactions would take much, much longer to complete and would also necessitate very large recipients for the chemical reactions to take place.

With catalysts, he said, a chemical reaction can be accelerated by up to trillions of time if not more. “The development of the chemical industry, in general, is started with the development of its catalysts first; after the catalysts are found, then the process can take place,” Subagjo said.

He said that even though catalysts were important and that more than 80 percent of the chemical industry uses them, almost all of Indonesia’s needs are met by imports. To meet world demand, only 30 percent of the catalyst globally produced are sold freely in the market. About 40 percent are being developed, produced and used by the industries that develop those products while the remaining 30 percent is developed by the industry which will use it, but the actual production is done by a third party.

“We should have a national catalyst plant, at the very least to meet national demands,” Subagjo said.

Catalysts play an important role in the production of biohydrocarbon fuels

Subagjo said that he had since 1982 researched and later developed a process to crack palm oil into vegetable gasoline, but at the time there were no takers, most probably because palm oil production was still limited and fossil fuels were not only abundant but also cheaper.

He said that getting industrial partners, crucial in assisting the development of researches and the necessary product testing at commercial scale, was a complicated and time-consuming process, adding that there needed to be industry leaders who not only have a forward and nationalistic vision but also dare to take decisions.

He cited the case of the 1994 challenge made by Kadar Soeradimadja, then director of research and development with state-owned PT. Pupuk Iskandar Muda (PT. PIM). Kadar challenged Subagjo and friends to develop an H2S adsorbent, which at the time still had to be imported from the United States, in large quantities, and at great transport costs.

The challenge was accepted and led to the production of PIMIT-B1, an iron oxide-based adsorbent has twice the capacity of adsorbents previously used by PT. PIM.

The role of the industry was also very important, such as in the development and testing of hydrotreating catalysts that was jointly conducted with the Research & Technology Center (RTC) Pertamina. This collaboration yielded the PITN 100-2T (PK 100 HS) which now has already gone through pilot and commercial-scale testing. The cooperation with RTC Pertamina had been ongoing since 2005 and has now been able to produce more than 170 tons of various hydrotreating catalysts currently used by Pertamina as an import substitute.

Together with Pertamina and the Palm Oil Plantation Fund Management Board (BPDPKS), the ITB team of Subagjo and his friends have also already managed to deoxidize palm oil into biohydrocarbon diesel oil as well as deoxidize palm kernel oil into bio aviation fuel, and convert palm oil into vegetable gasoline.

Commercial tests have already been conducted on the biohydrocarbon diesel oil at the Dumai refinery while commercial tests on bio aviation fuel were already in the pipeline and due soon.

“In term of technology, we are ready,” said Subagjo referring to efforts to attain self-sufficiency in the energy field. But, as he said, mobilization of the national resources to enable the attainment of this dream of independency was yet to take place.

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