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Saving Earth, one car at a time

As the planet warms, India has promised that within seven years 20 per cent of the diesel sold will come from plants. One company shows it can be done, reports Anika Gupta.

autos Updated: Oct 08, 2009 01:24 IST
Anika Gupta

Megha Rathee’s mint-green Scorpio sits like any other car in a corporate parking lot in Gurgaon, Delhi’s suburb of global companies. There’s no indication that it is a remarkable vehicle — India’s first commercial car to run on 100 per cent biodiesel.

Plenty of cars run on a diesel-biofuel blend. In October 2007, under pressure from the world to cut emissions of the greenhouses gases produced by fossil fuel combustion, the Indian government mandated that all diesel contain 5 per cent biofuel by volume. Biofuels are fuels produced from crops. They burn cleaner than fossil fuels — releasing up to 90 per cent less carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for global climate change. Biodiesels, a subset of biofuels, are fuels produced from vegetable or animal oils.

Now, the government is targeting a 20 per cent biofuel blend by 2017. Last week, under pressure from world leaders, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh promised that India will set targets for reducing its carbon emissions and report annually on its progress to the United Nations.

But Megha doesn’t need to wait for anyone to mix biodiesel into her fuel. Her Scorpio can run on either – although she says it performs better with biodiesel.

Together, Megha and her husband Akshat own a business, Earth 100 biofuels, which provides biofuel-powered cars to corporate clients.

The Rathees first came up with the idea in 2007. “Since nobody else had tried to do this, we had to build the entire business,” said Akshat.

They approached a few companies, who indicated that they’d be willing to run biodiesel-powered cars as part of their company fleet if the Rathees could provide the cars.

In countries such as Brazil, engines regularly run on oil that is up to 70 per cent biofuel. A regular diesel engine can be outfitted to burn biofuel with a few minor and inexpensive alterations. For the same price as a regular Scorpio, Mahindra and Mahindra, an automobile firm, agreed to supply the Rathees with Scorpios that could run on both diesel and biodiesel.

The trouble was sourcing the oil.

In 2007, the same time the Rathees were looking to start their business, the world was abuzz with news of a potential new “miracle biodiesel”, produced from jatropha curcas, a bush that grows wild in India. Jatropha seeds are, on average, 38 per cent oil. The plant grows on arid land, and the biodiesel produced from crushed jatropha seeds performs well in diesel engines.

At the time, a few major Indian players had gotten into the biofuels market, particularly jatropha. But these corporations exported their product to Europe and the United States, where demand is higher.

“We approached five different companies, multimillion dollar companies,” said Akshat. “But none of them could supply us with jatropha oil.”

The Rathees finally met up with the Chhattisgarh Biofuel Development Authority (CBDA), a small facility in Raipur, central India. The Authority at the time supplied limited quantities of jatropha oil for scientific research. Jatropha grows wild in Chhattisgarh, and for several years the CBDA had been employing rural farmers under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, paying them anywhere from Rs 8 to Rs 20 for every kg of jatropha plant they picked.

In order to supply the Rathees’ project, the CBDA upgraded its refining and laboratory testing facilities until it could provide a type of oil that met rigorous international biodiesel standards.

By March 2008, Earth 100 was ready to roll out a pilot fleet of 10 cars.

Now, the company has an order book of 700, the Rathees say. Their clients include million-dollar multinationals, state governments, and potentially even the Commonwealth Games Committee, which is considering using Earth 100 cars to ferry athletes, delegates and workers. The additional cost of operating a jatropha-powered car instead of a diesel car is about two rupees per kilometre, said Megha.

“Everybody seems to like the idea,” said Megha. “People keep asking us if they can get these cars for their personal use.”

But where is jatropha?

Despite Megha’s optimism, it’s going to be several years before individuals can buy jatropha-powered cars for personal use. It will take scientists three or four years to turn wild jatropha into a commercially productive plant, and to resolve issues of where and how jatropha should be grown.

One of jatropha’s best traits, according to biodiesel enthusiasts, is that it can grow on marginal lands, so it doesn’t compete with food crops for space.

But early experiments showed that jatropha produces very little oil under marginal conditions. A 2009 study found that commercial jatropha requires almost four times more water than corn or sugar cane, making it the most water-intensive biofuel crop.

Some advocates question the very existence of marginal lands.

“Rural communities depend on these marginal lands for resources,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, head of the air pollution team at the research and advocacy Centre for Science and Environment.

Scientific research might be able to overcome these objections. One of India’s first jatropha producers, Nandan Biomatrix, has a 1,000-acre research facility at its Hyderabad headquarters, dedicated to jatropha.

They are analysing everything from hybrid technology to best farming practices, said marketing director CS Jadhav. “The research will take a few years,” said Jadhav, “but it can be done.”