We are free to grow as much biofuel as we please to fulfil our energy needs, to unburden our economy and to reduce harmful emissions like carbon dioxide. But this miracle fuel needs further technology development to bring down the cost of production, reduce pressure on edible foods and tackle its byproducts for proper viability.
In India ethanol is manufactured from sugarcane even though it affects the country’s sugar production. The US and the UK use corn kernels and wheat that happen to be too valuable food products, and therefore unfeasible options for India. The US also uses soybean, Malaysia palm oil and Europe sunflower to extract biodiesel but all that is unviable for India, considering its shortage of edible oils. Our best options remain non-edible oil seeds like jatropha and pongamia besides newer technologies that use agricultural waste.
Next generation cellulose technology can extract ethanol from wood, straw and even crop residue according a recent assessment of India’s Biofuel Industry by UNCTAD. This process is complex and expensive, but work is being done on biotechnological innovations to make it more affordable. A McKinsey report Betting on Biofuels says in case of China, cellulosic technology could lower cost of production to as little as $0.60 per gallon, making it the cheapest biofuel in the world. Other energy efficient production methods like membrane separation can further bring down the production cost, the report adds.
New generation technologies can also cut the cost and time of setting up processing plants. According to the UNCTAD report, new skid mounted technology makes it possible to quickly set up a 9,000 tonnes per year biodiesel plants as compared to the large 80,000 tonnes per year plant being set up in India for demonstration purposes.
Another successful technology is Fischer-Tropsch that converts biomass to diesel. Biomass is first converted to syngas that is further converted into diesel. The final product consists of 80 per cent diesel and 20 per cent naphtha. A paper by International Energy Agency states that for the past 50 years South Africa has used the technology and now China is also showing interest in it.
The utilisation of the byproducts of biodiesel can further bring down the cost of production and add to its economic viability. There is a need to develop ways to detoxify the meal cake in a cost effective manner so that it can be used as fertiliser. Technology for purifying glycerol, another byproduct, also needs to be developed.
India’s biofuel research remains in its infancy. A Planning Commission Committee report on biofuel in India advises that high quality planting material be obtained through biotechnology improvements. It urges that the area under genetically improved trees also be increased for better quality and quantity of oil.
While the Planning Commission’s advice is nowhere close to implementation, India has had its share of victory through successful trial runs of biodiesel. A report by The Energy and Resources Institute illustrates an example of the Karnataka Government where a 10 per cent blend of Karanja oil was used to run two new buses. The trial run found an overall increase of 12.5 per cent in mileage and a saving of Rs 3 per litre by using the blend over diesel.
Unlike hydrogen fuel cell technology, biofuel technology is well within our reach. With a little more research and right policies, we might be able to grow our fuel in a sustainable, economical and environment friendly manner.