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Magazines & Newsletters / ASTM Standardization News


May/June 2008

From Earth to Engine

Biofuel, Zimbabwe and ASTM International Standards

In Zimbabwe, ASTM International standards provide a framework to contribute to the country’s energy independence as well as a better quality of life for the African nation.

Jatropha SeedRenewable energy resources have been receiving widespread attention, particularly in the pursuit of sustainable development and other environmental considerations. In Zimbabwe, that pursuit includes responding to Kyoto Protocol dictates and investing in greener technologies that will help reduce carbon emissions and curb undesirable effects of climate change and global warming. Consequently, government policy has shifted from the use of traditional, conventional fossil fuels — diesel and petroleum-based products and lubricants — to such biofuels as biodiesel and ethanol-based fuels.

In addition, Zimbabwe, like many other African states, has been hit by a major energy deficit, and any attempts to address this problem are well received by such government policymakers as the Ministry of Science and Technology, research institutions and universities. Studies project that biodiesel has the potential to contribute about 30 percent of the country’s fuel needs, and biofuel production will contribute to sustainable development, job creation and poverty reduction in Zimbabwe and in Africa.

As it works to mitigate its energy deficiency and pursue environmentally friendly technologies for energy exploitation, Zimbabwe has concentrated largely on cultivating Jatropha curcas, a perennial oilseed plant. Since 2002, the country has unrolled an extensive program promoting research about biodiesel made from the oil of seeds produced by locally grown Jatropha plants, with ASTM International standards guiding the research.

Jatropha, a Biodiesel Feedstock

Jatropha is a genus of approximately 175 evergreen succulents, shrubs and trees from the family Euphorbiaceae, native to Africa, North America and the Caribbean. The plant, which is drought-resistant, can tolerate the high-moisture stress conditions prevalent in most parts of the country, and it grows well on a wide range of land types, including marginal areas, wasteland and land unsuitable for agricultural crops. Because Jatropha produces seeds for up to 30 years, it is a sustainable feedstock for biodiesel production.

In an effort to economically empower local communities, initiatives by government in partnership with some nongovernment organizations encourage rural subsistence farmers to grow Jatropha plants as a business. The project has been well received by local communities and has gained a major boost from such groups as World Vision in Zimbabwe and neighboring countries.

Planting Jatropha for biodiesel production has become a viable business in Zimbabwe, and similar initiatives elsewhere have gained widespread acceptance. For example, a total of 41,044 hectares of Jatropha have been planted in Swaziland, Zambia, Madagascar and Malawi. In Swaziland, a total of 9,244 hectares, of which 1,227 hectares are managed plantations and a further 8,017 hectares are under contract farming, have been planted, while in Zambia, 2,411 hectares are managed plantations and 20,760 hectares are under contract farming. The crops have helped to reduce poverty levels and improve rural employment, creating thousands of jobs.

The Zimbabwean Fuels Committee

In Zimbabwe, the laboratory extraction of biodiesel from Jatropha started at a local polytechnic, and the need for standards to characterize performance was quickly realized. To address this standards need, the Standards Association of Zimbabwe’s existing Zimbabwean Technical Committee CH20: Petroleum Products and Lubricants, expanded its scope to include biodiesel.

Technical Committee CH20 first met in 2006, at which time it agreed to adopt and adapt ASTM D6751, Specification for Biodiesel Fuel Blend Stock (B100) for Middle Distillate Fuels, which is under the jurisdiction of Committee D02 on Petroleum Products and Lubricants. After analyzing the standard, which references a number of ASTM, European and UOP test methods, a full-scale project to commercialize biodiesel production was unveiled.

Technical Committee CH20 is mandated to develop national standards for biodiesel blends ranging from B2 to B20. The committee includes representatives from academia, the motor industry, petroleum dealers and marketers, biodiesel manufacturers, farmers’ unions, government agencies and the Standards Association of Zimbabwe; it has adopted more than 20 ASTM International standards.

The biodiesel project calls for extensive research to characterize biodiesel blends made from Jatropha because the specifications given in ASTM D6751, which uses soybean as the feedstock, may be totally, or partially, different from those involving Jatropha. A research team is looking into all of these factors.

ASTM Standards and Zimbabwean Ethanol Production

Another area where ASTM International standards make a difference is in ethanol production. In Zimbabwe, a blend of ethanol mixed with gasoline has been one traditional source of motor fuel. At one point, the fuel, with a 13 percent blend, was the only gasoline available in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe has the capacity to extract ethanol from sugar cane, a crop commonly grown on
plantations in the low veld. Here, a number of ASTM standards have been in common use (click here for sidebar).

For example, in 1975, Triangle Limited, a private enterprise, decided to use surplus molasses from up to 40,000 tonnes of sugar for ethanol production. The plant, which started production in 1979, operated for more than 18 years with resulting environmental benefits, skills transfer and technological adaptation before it was decommissioned. Efforts to restart production are being pursued.

Now and into the Future

Through its Memorandums of Understanding program, ASTM International encourages the participation of previously marginalized stakeholder groups in the standards development process through active participation, or by electronic means, in technical committees and subcommittees of national interest. The Standards Association of Zimbabwe, an MOU partner since 2002, promotes the participation of Zimbabwean experts in ASTM standards development activities. In addition, through the ASTM International Standards Expert Exchange Program, a Zimbabwean representative will visit ASTM later this year to learn more about the standards development process.

While there is much to be done in Zimbabwe with standardization and improving the country’s infrastructure, CH20 is moving forward with biodiesel and ethanol research and production plans, and ASTM International standards will help guide innovation, dictate technological trends and provide market access.


Gerald Chiwozva is a standards and quality engineer at the Standards Association of Zimbabwe headquarters, Harare, and serves as technical secretary to SAZ/Technical Committee CH20, Petroleum Products and Lubricants. He holds a bachelor of science honors degree in applied physics and qualifications in international standardization management.