BIO-FUELS – BACK TO THE FUTURE?

Import dependent for our lifeblood

How crucial Bio-Feuls are to India can be judged from the fact that India’s oil bill jumped by some 25% to touch $ 87.725 billion or Rs 5.65 lakh crores in 2017-18 as international oil prices surged. In 2016-17 India had imported 213.93 million tons of crude oil for USD 70.196 billion or Rs 4.7 lakh crores.

India relies for more than 80% of its requirements on imports. The basket of crude oil India imports was priced at round USD 55.74 a barrel for the period April 2017 to Feb 2018. In March the estimated price was UDS 65 per barrel, with an exchange rate of Rs 65 to a US dollar.

How significant these figures are, can be judged from the fact that each dollar per barrel increase in crude oil price, jacks up our import costs by Rs 823 crores. There is an identical impact when there is an increase in currency exchange rate by each Re 1 for a US dollar. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

Brent, the benchmark of half the world’s oil, including India, has jumped by more than 70% and now trades at $77.09 per barrel. The rupee has tanked to Rs 72 to the dollar; a historic high.

A bit of good news on the bio-fuel front

The much-hyped claims for the bio-fuel, Jatropha oil received a big boost when India’s first biofuel-powered flight that aims to reduce costs of sir travel by replacing the costly aviation turbine fuel was successfully tested recently. a 72-seater SpiceJet aircraft, partially powered by bio-jet fuel, took off from Dehradun and landed at the Delhi airport.

SpiceJet’s biofuel is a mix of the oil extracted from the seeds of Jathropha plant and aviation turbine fuel, the airline said. Five hundred farmer families in Chattisgarh are involved in the production of the partially-refined biofuel which was used in the successful flight.

The biofuel for the trial flight, developed by Dehradun-based CSIR- Indian Institute of Petroleum, was rigorously tested to ensure flight safety.

Civil Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu said “We want to increase the use of biofuel in the country so that there is reduction in green house gas emission and import of petroleum. We will make sure that more and more airlines start the use of biofuel”

“It has the potential to reduce our dependence on traditional aviation fuel by up to 50 percent on every flight and bring down fares’” SpiceJet Chairman and MD Ajay Singh said.

A lot of hype but little substance

Fuel is today such an integral part of our lives that even small changes in its availability and price create tremendous ripple effects, particularly for industry. It should be clear to the meanest intelligence that an economic and less polluting alternative to imported fuel has been a crying need for years.

Like many other areas from family planning to solar energy, the Government did initiate efforts nearly 15 years ago, but in terms of results it has been quite pathetic.

Pathetic state of Bio-fuels in India

In the report “The Pathetic State of Bio-Fuels in India” by Ramya Natrajan, Senior Research Engineer at CSTEP, which appeared in the Hans India, written in the background of the pollution nightmare in Delhi caused by the burning of straw and stubble residues, she has succinctly summarized our pathetic record as follows:

“The Ethanol Blended Pertol Programme (EBP), launched in 2003, aimed at promoting five percent blending of molasses-based ethanol with petrol. in 2008, the EBP further pushed the blending target to 10 percent and allowed production from sugarcane juice as well.

The National Biodiesel Mission, formed by the Planning Commision in 2003, proposed a two-phase strategy for biodiesel production from jatropha seeds to achieve a 10 percent blending mandate with diesel by 2012.

Despite under-achieving these blending targets, in 2009, the National Biofuels Policy set another ambitious target of 20 percent blending for both ethanol and biodiesel by 2017.

Today, we stand at best at a national average of 2.5 percent ethanol and 0.5 percent biodiesel blends.

The failure to achieve blending targets can be attributed to myriad reasons. The primary cause is the lack of an efficient and reliable supply chain. Biomass, which typically refers to plants, crop residues and organic wastes, comes in varying sizes and shapes, making transportation unwieldy and difficult to standardize as a process.

The fact that the quality of biomass varies with the type of crop adds to the difficulty of standardization. Most crops and their residues are available on a seasonal basis and cannot be stored for long because they will rot. Even though biofuels have the potential to be carbon neutral, this is rarely achieved. Untreated raw biomass has a medium-to-low energy density, so the energy requirement for handling, transportation ans processing trumps the energy content in the fuel — making it a net emitter of corbon dioxide.”

How to turn a problem into a solution

“The need of the hour is a technology that can convert and compress biomass into a lighter, energy-dense solid, with a low moisture content and higher resistance to weather conditions. Torrefaction, if implemented properly, can be an apt solution.

Torrefaction is the process of slow heating or roasting of biomass in limited oxygen, to degrade the hemicelluloses (which is the component of biomass responsible for its fibrous and unwieldy nature). This process releases moisture and some of the more volatile gases, thereby reducing the mass and volume but retaining most of the energy content.

Torrefied biomass could also be a good option for producing methanol. Considering that India does not have sufficient indigenous natural gas reserves and that coal is a greenhouse gas nightmare, torrefied biomass could be a promising resource option. It can directly gel with the existing coal-to-methanol technologies.

Creating well-oiled biomass supply chain machinery will, in turn, create a demand for straw and stubble residues, making it more profitable for farmers to sell rather than burn them. The proposed strategy is in the interest of farmer welfare, critical to air quality improvement and could present a major success story for biofuels in India.”

Meanwhile what of Jatropha?

At one time Jatropha had been hyped as the panacea for all our fuel substitution needs, but the results have fallen well short of the promise. The Government had originally planned to make Jatropha fuel available across India by 2018 but had to abandon that target in 2013 itself. It has certain drawbacks.

It requires fertile soil and the plant is mainly useful for the seed oil. its cost is also close to that of petrol.

Many alternatives are being looked at, including sorghum, which is a rich source of bio-diesel.

Soyabean, waste cooking oil and bagasse are also likely candidates but scientists rank karanj and ingudi plants, which are easy to grow in different climates, as the best bet for the future.

The TOI report quotes Dr. Padmanabhi Nagar of MS University, Vadodara as saying “the bio-fuel quality is as good as Jatropha and the cost can be brought down to Rs 35 per litre”. Karanj and ingudi are also used in soaps and shampoos, while the wood is used in tool handles.

Testing has also shown encouraging results with a blend of 5 to 20%.

Raising hopes or a genuine breakthrough

Meanwhile, a report in Firstpost quotes State-owned Indian Oil Corp. (IOC) as saying that it has developed technology that will help advance the use of non-edible oil extracted from plants like Jatropha (bio-diesel) in auto fuels.

“IOC has successfully developed and commercialized a technology to co-process non-edible vegetable oil in the existing Diesel Hydrotreating (DHDT) units of a petroleum refinery to make bio-diesel,” the company said in a statement.

This is first time in India, and possibly the first in the world, when Jatropha oil has been used for co-processing in a petroleum refinery. This technology for co-processing of Jatropha oil has been developed by the R&D Centre of IOC located at Faridabad.

The company termed this as a “major technological breakthrough that can be a game changer for advancing use of bio-diesel in the country and ensuring ready acceptance of the fuel by the automobile industry”.

Who knows? The Jatropha plant may still give us the wonder fuel and fulfill all the wonder fuel and fulfill all the hype showered on it. Industry and MSMEs will certainly welcome any breakthrough which makes energy less polluting and more affordable.

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