MMSU inaugurates PH’s 1st bioenergy research center

First, it was an ambitious dream to put up a modern facility to produce high grade bioethanol to fill up the shortage of this bioenergy in the country and to tap other potential energy sources to reduce the dependence on fossil fuel gas and oil reserves in the region.


That dream has become a reality last January 23 with the formal inauguration of the first National Bioenergy Research and Innovation Center (NBERIC) in the country that is located in the main campus of the MMSU.


The construction of the building started in January last year after a groundbreaking ceremony led by Rep. Dennis Laogan of the Ang Kabuhayan Party List who expressed support to this project.


The inauguration of the building was led by MMSU President Shirley C, Agrupis and was witnessed by several officials of the province and those from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Department of Agriculture (DA), and the Department of Energy (DoE).


Dr. Agrupis said the NBERIC has started exploring sources of alternative fuels from renewable cellulosic biomass found in Ilocos Norte such as plant stalks, trunks, stems, and leaves that are expected to significantly reduce local dependence on imported oil while enhancing national energy security and decreasing the environmental impacts of energy use. 


"In MMSU, there have been an on-going ethanol and other advanced biofuels researches from nipa and other cellulosic biomass that are now being used as renewable alternatives that could increase domestic production of transportation fuels, revitalize rural economies, and reduce carbon dioxide and pollutant emissions," she said, adding that the NBERIC will lead to the development of the next generation of biofuels, which is key to the government's effort to end the country's dependence on foreign fuel oil and address the climate crisis while creating new jobs that can't be outsourced.


"I am overwhelmed and blessed with the thought that the establishment of this building was just a dream, now a reality," she said, noting that when she started the bioenergy project of MMSU 10 years ago, "we were just a group of guerilla scientists armed with no more than a grip of passion for what we were doing and a clear sense of what we wanted to accomplished."


"Now, we have elevated that small project into a national center," she beamed, noting that from zero fund support, from a couple of faculty who worked in the laboratory, and from 150-milliliter capacity flask for fermentation, "this effort has metamorphosed into what it is now and soon we will be deploying 800-liter capacity fermentation and distillation system in Antique, Marinduque and Palawan like what we did in Cagayan and Pangasinan in 2013 and 2017, respectively." 


According to Dr. Agrupis, the establishment of the NBERIC is dedicated to Ilocano farmers and that she wants to integrate them to this project so that they will not just be feedstock producers in bioethanol  industry. 


Through the NBERIC, the university will strengthen and pursue basic research underlying a range of high-risk, high-return biological solutions for bioenergy applications.


Advances resulting from the NBERIC are providing the knowledge needed to develop new bio-based products, methods, and tools that the emerging biofuel industry can use.


It is recalled that in 2017, Rep. Lord Allan Velasco (Marinduque), has committed P110 million for the establishment of the NBERIC. Dr. Agrupis presented to the congressman a project proposal for the center.


Among other things, the proposal contained the development and optimal use of the country's renewable energy resources central to the Philippine's sustainable energy agenda. Renewable energy is an essential part of the country's low emissions development strategy and is vital to addressing the challenges of climate change, energy security, and access to energy.


The project outlined, among other things, the policy framework enshrined in Republic Act 9513, or the law that promotes the development, utilization and commercialization of renewable energy sources.


In a nutshell, the NBERIC will set the strategic building blocks that will utilize agricultural crops that are excellent sources of bio-ethanol such as nipa. 


Impressed and interested on the agronomic characteristics of nipa, Rep. Velasco wanted to expand the crop's hectarage n the country. In fact, he encouraged farmers to stop planting mangrove trees and plant nipa, instead, because he wanted to include palm as one of the bio-feed stocks for biofuel energy. As a gesture of support to the program, Ilocos Sur Representative Diogracias DV Sevillano offered to give the initial fund of P50 million. 


Dr. Agrupis said the NBERIC is expected to help the country achieve the goals set forth in the Renewable Energy Act of 2008 and that it will serve as a big leap from a halting renewable energy initiatives into a focused and sustained drive towards energy security and improved access to clean energy.


In the same year, the DENR has allotted P50 million for the establishment of a 25-hectare composite areas of nipa plantation in Ilocos Norte in an attempt to arrest the 221 million liters shortage of bioethanol in the country.


This volume, according to MMSU experts, represents the 61 percent annual shortage, which is a major cause of bioethanol importation that is draining the country's dollar reserves while the government implements Republic Act No. 9367 otherwise known as the Biofuels Act of 2006.


In a previous interview, Engr. Thomas Ubiña, NBERIC chief, lamented that the country is capable of producing only 39 percent of its total bioethanol requirements and the volume is not enough to sustain the demands of local industries. Ubiña and the rest of the MMSU community led by Dr. Agrupis said they are happy for the DENR's move to help put up such massive plantation, and continue the restoration, management and protection of nipa plantation in the country.


The NBERIC researchers are now working to establish the 25-hectare composite nipa plantation sites that are located in Bacarra (8 hectares), Currimao (3 hectares), Paoay (4 hectares), and Laoag City (10 hectares).


Dr. Agrupis said that when this composite area of nipa plantation is established, "we will become the major advocate in minimizing the effects of climate change through reduction of greenhouse gases, and in reducing the importation of fossil fuels."