Thursday, January 06, 2005

The bio alternative - fuel blends on a test-run

The glower on most Indians' faces, right now, threatens to be matched only by the darkening of our political horizons, thanks to yet another hike in petrol, diesel and LPG prices.

With petrol prices touching Rs 39 and diesel climbing upto Rs 26.28, and little likelihood of international prices falling, the general mood is sombre. Given that domestic crude oil accounts for barely 22% of India's needs and that oil imports form more than 30% of the total import bill, of which diesel forms a large chunk of 40%, finding a viable alternative becomes imperative.

However, going by the recent reports and the tests held at the International Symposium on Fuel and Lubricants held in Delhi, we might have at least a 'blended' solution at hand. Bio-diesel is here, ready and waiting.

The research and development wing of Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) has been testing energy alternatives like Bio-diesel for the last few years. Bio-diesel, a fuel based on oil extracts from plant seeds, is a viable option, since it is not only a renewable source of energy, but also has low sulphur content and better lubricity than petro-diesel. It has been successfully used in several countries, although India could not afford to use sources like palm oil or soya or indeed, any other edible oils since we are also one of the largest importers of edible oils.

Researchers turned to non-edible oilseeds; what emerged as the most viable option, was the humble Jatropha Curcas, locally known as Ratanjot, grows wild on wastelands across India. According to Dr DK Tuli, CEO of Indian Oil Technologies Limited (R&D centre), they already have 20 buses of Haryana Roadways running on B-5 (a 5% blend of Diesel and Bio-diesel). "At the symposium, two Tata Indicas were also test-driven on bio-diesel and even a train, the Shatabdi between Delhi and Amritsar, has had a smooth test run. Cars will not require engine modifications, and the efficiency of the engine isn't effected, may even be improved because of better lubrication."

Tests indicate that vehicle performance is satisfactory with 20% blends. But so far, IOC has been promoting bio-diesel in phases, with the introduction of only 5 or 10 % blends. Dr Tuli added, "An experimental production facility in Faridabad is producing 60 kg per day. OIC has also has a licensee in Goa, who will set up a unit with a 10-15 thousand tonnes production capacity. We need many more Jatropha trees of course, to be able to exploit this commercially. But we are really not keen on doing plantations ourselves. But there is an agreement with Indian Railways, who gave us abandoned tracts of land in Gujarat to convert into Jatropha plantations. Elsewhere, farmers are realising the importance and have started planting Jatropha trees. I estimate that at least 40,000 hectares are already being cultivated."

Officials are enthusiastic about bio-diesel in India, not only because it is an energy alternative, but also because it seems to make environmental sense, and holds the potential for large-scale employment opportunities in rural areas.

The Tenth Planning Commission has said in a report that it intends to bring 4 lakh hectares under Jatropha plantations as part of its National Mission on Bio-Diesel. 200 districts were identified, in 19 states, on the basis of availability of wasteland, rural poverty ratio and climatic conditions. Madhya Pradesh tops the list, with Rajasthan, Jharkand and Maharashtra coming in next.It is estimated that it will take three years for the seeds to mature, and that approximately Rs 10,000 will be required per acre, as investment in a given year of plantation. The Planning commission intends to invest heavily since plantation activities hope to generate 127.6 million person-days of employment. Seed collection would generate another 8 million person-days, while more people could be employed for processing, transportation and other related activities.

The residue from the oil-cakes could be used as organic manure. The report also said that it could save India Rs 20,000 crores in crude oil imports by the end of the tenth plan.

Dilip Chenoy, Director General of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers agrees that tests have been successful and looking at India's fuel requirements, it's very important to give bio-diesel a chance. "Fundamentally, it is viable and technically, it can be done. Tata Motors and IOC have already done some successful runs. A lot of fine-tuning has to be done though, before it becomes commercially viable. For it to be commercially viable, it has to be priced equal to or lower than regular diesel. That is not likely to happen before three to five years."

Bio-diesel would now be priced at Rs 40-45 a litre, according to Dr DK Tuli, and until the production of Jatropha increases, the prices cannot be brought down. One hectare with approximately 4400 plants on it can yield upto 1500 litres of oil. But at least 3 million hectares of Jatropha plantations will be required to produce enough oil for 10 % blends.

The plantations should also help to rehabilitate wastelands and help build a greener environment. Bio-diesel cuts down on emissions like particulate matter, Carbon Monoxide and total hydrocarbons. However, it does slightly increase nitrogen oxide emissions, a fact that is deepening the furrows on some environmentalist foreheads.

The issue of increased NOx emissions was something the Central Pollution Control Board was aware of. However, according to Dr Tuli, this is not a concern yet. "If used in 100% form, there are higher NOx emissions. Maybe about 3-4% higher than diesel but not so in blends. And at present, we are only looking at 5-10% blends."

The ministry of non-conventional energy sources is working on alternatives through the National Hydrogen Board, which is trying exploit Hydrogen, and blend it with CNG. Ethanol can also be produced from renewable sources like sugarcane, sugar beet or starch. Ethanol and Methanol, however, are oxygenates with 25% oxygen. They have not been very effective because of the corrosion factor and toxic emissions.

In the meantime, diesel consumption is growing at 5-6% every year; India's total carbon emissions are said to be increasing at 3.2 % per annum. In the given scenario, the case for giving bio-diesel a fair chance seems to be a strong one.

Octover 2004.

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