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BYU chemical engineering major Jacob Jones led a team of students to Tonga, where they showed residents how to turn coconut oil into biodiesel and left the Tongans a reactor to produce the fuel.

PROVO — Coconuts have all kinds of uses, from the ridiculous to the reverent.

Comedians banged together coconut halves to make the clip-clop sounds of hooves as they drily pretended to ride horses with regal seriousness in the cult-movie hit "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Medical journals report that in a pinch, coconut milk has been used as an IV fluid, and in many cultures, the coconut palm is considered the "Tree of Life" for all it provides.

But in Tonga, where the coconut market crashed two decades ago, a Brigham Young University engineering class proved this month that coconut oil could make a crucial comeback as a biodiesel fuel.

"The Tongan economy centered around exporting coconuts and coconut oil until the 1980s, when soybean oil drove coconut producers out of business," BYU student and Hyde Park native Allyson Frankman said. "Farmers and processors were devastated, and the economy has never really recovered, but the coconuts are still there — they litter the ground."

Tongans use diesel for cars, boats, the generators that provide electricity and the pumps that provide clean water to their homes. And diesel costs at least $4.20 a gallon there.

With vegetable oils being converted into biofuels all over the world, a Tongan family, the Haveas, approached BYU professor Randy Lewis about the possibility of using coconut oil.

At about the same time, Frankman and another chemical engineering student, Mapleton's Jacob Jones, decided to launch a BYU chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

"We wanted to see the College of Engineering and Technology more involved in humanitarian efforts," said Frankman, 25, who is seeking a Ph.D. "We're taught ideals of service and charity at BYU and have this technical skill, but we don't have opportunities to use that technical skill in service very often."

Frankman and Jones approached the faculty with an idea for a class. BYU created an engineering elective called "Global Projects in Engineering and Technology."

More than 30 students signed up and spent the winter semester studying coconuts and creating reactors that mix the oil with methanol and sodium hydroxide and convert it into clean-burning fuel.

The team used 10 coconuts to make a liter of diesel. Coconut oil is extracted from the meat, or copra, of the plant by grating, drying and pressing it.

After the semester, 27 students traveled to Tonga. From May 8-22, they trained Tongans to use the reactor. They also showed their work to schools and government officials. The highlight of the demonstrations was when BYU students cranked up a diesel engine with a fresh batch of coconut biodiesel.

The students left behind one reactor capable of making 40 gallons a day, Jones said.

Frankman said coconut biodiesel will be cheaper than diesel fuel, unless the Tongan government taxes it too high.

A spokesperson for the Tongan Minister of Land, Survey and Natural Resources said Tonga wants to pursue biodiesel.

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"If it will be proven cheaper, then it can be produced locally, with a minimum import of methanol and sodium hydroxide," the spokesperson said. "It will be a form of employment and can be exported to other countries that produce biodiesel, which in turn can boost the exportation level."

Jones, 24, and four other students plan to be involved. He earned a bachelor's degree in April but is part of Motu BioFuels, a student startup company that won first place in BYU's Social Venture Competition.

They plan to use the $4,000 first prize to scale up coconut biodiesel production in Tonga.


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com