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Web Exclusive| Biofuels, fuels of the future

Web Exclusive| Biofuels, fuels of the future
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First Published: Tue, Aug 21 2007. 11 09 AM IST
Updated: Tue, Aug 21 2007. 11 09 AM IST
New Delhi: As fossil fuels become increasingly scarce and expensive, the search for alternative energy sources is getting intensified. Till quite recently the low cost of petroleum products made most agro-based fuels uneconomic, but not any longer. Since taxes in most countries account for more than half the price the consumer pays, many countries lower the taxes on bio fuels to make them viable.
The world automotive industry is seriously worried because they know that the ever-increasing prices of fossil fuels will adversely impact their future sales. Their business is to sell vehicles, so unlike oil companies, they are quite serious about bio fuels.
Brazil was one of the first to introduce a mix of 25% ethanol, derived from sugarcane, with petrol to make Gasahol that was popularized with slightly lower retail prices over 30 years ago. 100% ethanol is used in Formula 1 cars as it does not catch fire but a 10% mix can be used in any petrol powered car without any modification to the engines or fuel systems.
Ethanol has a higher octane value than petrol but will result in slightly lower power and fuel efficiency. But since the Ministry of Petroleum was not interested in bio fuels and it was not a priority with the Ministry of Agriculture, no one pushed bio fuels in India till very recently. Now a 5% mix is being belatedly used in India but oil companies are reported to be dragging their feet in implementing the new mandate.
For trucks, buses and diesel cars, pure Jatropha oil with a small quantity of additives can be used instead of diesel without any modifications to the engines or fuel systems. Earlier this biodiesel had been successfully tested on test beds and for many thousand kms on the plains but road tests at high altitudes have demonstrated that emissions and performance as well as power output is excellent when put to an extreme test on steep inclines in the rarified air and low temperatures of high altitudes.
Jetropha oil compares well with diesel. The Cetane number is about 15% better than diesel at around 58 to 60 resulting in smoother and quieter performance. But the calorie output is a little lower and should result in about 3% less power output. However, as biodiesel contains a little oxygen it faces less oxygen starvation at high altitudes. The flashpoint though is about 160 degrees C as compared to 50 for diesel,making it much safer. On the emission front, bio diesel contains no Sulphur so there is no SOX while NOX continunes to be very low.
Jetropha by itself is a useless plant that came to India (originally it came from Mexico along with PL 480 wheat) from America in the 60’s. Animals and birds shun the berries and the stalks that are mildly poisonous. It cannot be used for food, fibre or fuel and its only use is as a hedge crop.
What makes it useful is the fact that it can grow on barren, saline and eroded wasteland and thrives with little water or care. It also competes with no other crop. The bush produces berries with seeds that can produce a good quantity of inedible oil.
Two years ago Daimler Chrysler set up a project with the Central Salt and Marine Research Institute (CSMCRI) in Bhavnagar (Gujarat) along with the University of Hohenheim in Germany to evaluate its suitability as a fuel for vehicles. The results were so promising and CSMCRI has now patented the process. The project has acquired wasteland in Gujarat and Orissa for setting up Jetropha plantations. Many other auto and other corporates are now seriously exploring the prospects.
According to estimates, two tonnes of seeds can be obtained from one hectare of average land per year yielding about 500 litres of oil worth about Rs18,000 at the price of normal diesel. Additionally about 1.5 tonnes of the inedible oilcake is also produced that makes excellent fertilizer that also has properties of discouraging pests.
Other by-products will be glycerol’s and soap. Research is also evaluating the possibilities of producing biodegradable plastics from these. The cost of producing this bio diesel, including the refining, will be roughly Rs30 per litre, which is much higher than the cost of diesel without the burdens of taxation. But as bio diesel would help reduce India’s huge import burden and help India’s poorest farmers, all Government agencies are keenly interested. This will help the commercial prices to probably be kept at par with diesel.
The value of the seeds to the farmers will be roughly Rs15,000 per hectare and will be a huge gain on the marginal incomes that barren land normally generates. The Jatropha bush grows to a height of about seven feet and yields seeds after two years even though it takes five years to reach maturity. It then produces seeds for about 50 years with minimal interculture, irrigation or effort.
One of the best aspects of the project is that the refining is easy and inexpensive. Small two tonnes per day extraction plants can be set up at a cost of around Rs40 lakhs to cover an area of roughly 4000 hectares under Jatropha. A number of cooperative mini refineries can be set up to cover a number of nearby villages.
Another important environmental benefit is that this biodiesel may help reduce the greenhouse effect of CO2 emissions and earn the project and the country some valuable CO2 credits. Actually it should earn double points because Jatropha plantations will also generate a large quantity of oxygen.
Some critics have criticised that growing fuels for cars and trucks will be at the cost of food production so necessary for the country. Though this is clearly not the case with Jetropha that grows on waste land. In the case of ethanol that, like alcohol, is mainly produced from sugarcane, there is considerable scope for picking up the surplus production which results in so much waste, and ethanol can also be extracted from other crops including beets and corn.
Much of rural land lies underutilized and demand for bio fuels will only increase farm incomes and stabilize farm product prices. The growing of more fuel generating crops will definitely put more money into rural pockets and stabalize fluctuating demand for agro products. They may lead to some impact on food prices, which would be a small price to pay for reducing the income disparities between urban and rural communities.
India has millions of hectares of wasteland and even if it may take several years to produce enough biodiesel to plug the foreign exchange drain, every step on the way will benefit millions of marginal farmers in India’s poorest lands. Today biodiesel seems to be the most viable alternate fuel on the horizon and the Indian Government and all its many agencies should pull out all the stops to make it commercially available in sufficient quantities, as soon as possible.
Many alternate fuels are being seriously studied. Toyota is producing hybrid vehicles, using both a petrol engine and an electric motor, but they are expensive, heavy and not very convenient. GM, Ford, Daimler Chrysler and others are looking at fuel cells, that directly convert fossil fuels into electricity, but while efficient these are still years away in the future. BMW is exploring hydrogen and though this is clean and efficient, the production of hydrogen needs energy and may generate some pollution. Then there is the problem of distribution because no energy source is as convenient as the neighbourhood petrol pump.
For a country with so much underutilized agricultural land, bio fuels are clearly an option that should be very seriously pursued.
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First Published: Tue, Aug 21 2007. 11 09 AM IST