Arjun Punj is an entrepreneur on a mission. He has devised a “conscious" alternative fuel for tandoors and barbecues—hardwood charcoal briquettes derived from waste products like sawdust and rice husk. They fire the tandoor in the gas-less kitchen of the stylish multilevel restaurant and bar Arth, renowned for its gas-free kitchen, in Mumbai. About a kilometre away, the Japanese eatery Izumi also procures these briquettes from Punj. 

Two weeks ago, Punj was at the first edition of Mumbai’s Isuzu X Food Festival, a curation of unique regional Indian dishes, from Ladakh to the Garo hills and Kerala to the Konkan coast. The tandoor stalls at the festival used the briquettes to grill and barbecue while Punj stood unobtrusively nearby, with a few cartons. He didn’t have a stall or any branding, and was handing out A4-sized pamphlets designed like a water pipe advertisement, with the name Eurocoustic Products Ltd. Punj is a director of the company started in 1994 that produces modular office furniture. Its alternative energy arm, self-funded by him, is at a nascent stage.

The cylindrical briquettes are lightweight, almost odourless, and burn surprisingly well, without smoke or smell. Lounge caught up with the entrepreneur. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What led to the creation of these hardwood briquettes? 

We sought manufacturing options for green energy and set up a pilot plant for bio diesel in 2007. We are in the process of upscaling it now as the market is beginning to open up, with the cost of diesel at an all-time high. In the meantime, we came across wood briquetting and making hardwood charcoal as a viable alternative energy solution. The plant was set up in the Union territory of Daman last year. When I heard the news about minors being trapped in a coal mine in Meghalaya in January, my resolve was strengthened. With this product, I am not only looking at clean cooking, but also eliminating the need for illegal coal mines.

How do you procure the raw material?

Sawdust is the primary raw material, sourced from the wood industry and pallet manufacturing workshops within a 50km radius of our factory in Daman. It is important to be close to the source of raw material to avoid wastage while transportation. Essentially, we are using waste from the wood industry, compressing it and then pyrolysing to create coal for tandoors and barbecue grills.

Can rice husk also be utilized as a raw material?

Rice husk and wheat chaff can also create these briquettes. I want to introduce mobile briquetting plants which can go from point to point, collect waste and compress it. Then we can transport them to a plant for pyrolysing. It’s complete close-loop recycling. This will be a viable solution to utilize agricultural waste that is now being burnt by farmers in the neighbouring states of Delhi. We will buy the waste from the farmers, which can be an additional income source. I have young nieces and nephews in Delhi and the air pollution there is disconcerting. I have to think of solutions to secure their and my children’s future.

What are the challenges in the alternative fuel industry?

Eurocoustics hardwood charcoal briquettes are retailed at 50 per kilo, which is higher than regular coal at 30 per kilo. This deters customers, especially commercial restaurants and hotel chains. I understand their reluctance, because it offsets their balance sheet. We know that burning regular coal is one of the sources of air pollution and there is no way to find out if they have been acquired by illegal mining. The permanent shift to conscious fuel can happen by intervention at a policy level.

Visit @eplcharcoal on Twitter and Instagram to contact Arjun Punj.

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