Coconut oil has been used for cooking and in soap for a long time. Pure coconut soap is a particularly nice product and if you haven't tried some, you are missing out. It lathers wonderfully even in hard water. But new uses are making this crop more desirable while helping island economies with a new source of income as well as saving them money by cutting imports.
The new use? Bio-diesel fuel. It turns out that oil from coconuts makes an excellent fuel for diesel engines. It burns more cleanly than its fossil counterpart, returning to the atmosphere only the carbon dioxide that the plant took out, and because of its chemical characteristics, causes less wear on engines by providing better lubrication, and gear boxes by providing more even power requiring less shifting. This has been known for twenty years or more, but now, with oil prices so high, it is being put to good use.
World oil production of fossil fuels is peaking. The EIA (Energy Information Administration), a part of the US Department of Energy, projects world demand to exceed production in the 4th quarter of 2005 as well as the 1st and 4th quarters of 2006. In other words, world demand for oil is outstripping the supply. (If you are in the market for a gas-guzzler car, I hope you have very deep pockets.) The result is higher and higher fuel costs, which are devastating to island countries that must import oil. Oil can account for 10% of the imports for a small island nation.
Vanuatu (between Australia and Fiji) used to import fossil fuel to run their electrical generators. At the same time, they were sending their copra to Fiji to be processed into coconut oil for sale on the world market. They spent money on importing diesel oil, and more money on shipping copra to Fiji and still more money to have the copra processed. Now, Vanuatu processes its own copra into bio-diesel and uses it locally to generate electricity. In addition, it is used to power buses and taxis. The result is a huge savings, which the government passes along to the community in the form of higher prices for copra. It's a win, win, win.
The by-products are also useful, as the left over meat makes excellent animal feed and the husk, or coco fiber (called coir) is useful for making rope, brushes, charcoal for burning or for water filtration, and as a medium for growing seedlings. Audi has had a plant in Brazil for several years now, which makes floor mats and the rear decks and door panels for cars from coco fiber.
The coconut bio-diesel idea is catching on, and many countries such as the Philippines, Kiribati, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Tuvalu, are starting up mills. Another advantage is that small hand driven presses can be used to produce bio-diesel from coconut so that small communities can provide for their own energy needs.
Coconut bio-diesel is not going to solve the energy problems of the developed countries. (Quite frankly, nothing will any time soon). But for island nations that just need small amounts for public transportation and very basic electrical generation, it promises to provide a sustainable and eco-friendly supply of fuel that will greatly reduce their dependence on outside help.
So don't be surprised if you visit the South Pacific and imagine that your taxi smells a bit like a coconut cream pie. You may be right!