Biofuels in India are of strategic importance as they augur well with the ongoing initiatives of the Narendra Modi government such as Make in India, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Skill Development and offer great opportunity to integrate with the ambitious targets of doubling of farmers’ income, import reduction and employment generation. The oil marketing companies blame the sustained and quantum nonavailability of domestic feedstock for biofuel production.

The National Policy on Biofuels-2018, approved by the Union Cabinet on 16 May, says one crore litre of biodiesel saves Rs 28 crore of foreign exchange at current rates. By reducing crop burning and conversion of agricultural residues and wastes to biofuels there will be further reduction in green house emissions. The Cabinet sanctioned Rs 5,000 crore to establish second generation (2G) ethanol refineries in the next six years. The policy allows use of surplus foodgrain for production of ethanol for blending with petrol with the approval of the National Biofuel Coordination Committee.

The three government-owned oil marketing companies ~ Indian Oil, BPCL and HPCL ~ and the government are having a gala time as the price of petrol and diesel are scaling new heights almost daily. The three companies made a profit of more than Rs 12,000 crore in the April-June quarter this year. The Union government earned Rs 2.29 lakh crore in taxes from the petroleum sector during 2017- 18, more than double it got in 2014-15. It also received Rs 14,575 crore in dividend from the three public sector oil companies during 2017-18. With such easy pickings why should they struggle with development of biofuels?

On 18 July 2002, the Planning Commission constituted a committee on development of biofuels under the chairmanship of DN Tiwari. The UPA government decided to blend up to 20 per cent of diesel sold by the oil marketing companies with biodiesel. Non-edible vegetable oil extracted from jatropha was found to have the requisite potential of providing commercially viable alternative diesel and that automobiles could be run with Jetropha diesel without any change in engine design.

Announcing the government’s biodiesel policy, Mani Shankar Aiyar, then Union minister for Petroleum, said from 1 January 2006 that Indian Oil Corporation, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited would purchase through select centres biodiesel that meets the quality standards prescribed by the Bureau of Industrial Standards and fixed the price at Rs 25 a litre.

The aim of the policy was to encourage producers of biodiesel and to ensure a continuous supply. Biofuels are the cheapest and most sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. Jetropha biodiesel can be produced and consumed locally in remote areas to run irrigation pumps and transport vehicles and light up homes. But there must be clear-cut policies for grassroots energy security. These policies should lead to energy self-sufficiency in remote regions promoting area development.

Bio-diesel as fuel has many advantages over conventional diesel fuel like safer handling and transport, greater thermal efficiency, self-processing, high octane number, and low emission of air polluting gases. Bio-diesel is an attested low pollutant fuel which is accepted the world over by engine manufacturers, is safe to handle and requires no infrastructure for its distribution and marketing. It should be developed and deployed as a substitute for the conventional petro-diesel.

Among the non-edible oils that can be converted into biodiesel, jatropha attains major importance because of its varied characteristics, namely, short gestation period, high oil content and adaptation to adverse climatic conditions. The shrub can be easily integrated into any agroforestry model because it will be maintained at short height only. The non-palatable nature of the plant gives added advantage for its easy establishment.

Its cultivation needs no fencing against animals. It is an ideal species under any agro-forestry system as there will be reduced competition with the associated field crop. Jatropha is found in almost all States in India. Although it prefers the warmer climate of tropical and sub-tropical regions, it can withstand cold and frost. Its water requirement is extremely low and can survive long periods of drought. Jatropha plantation can be raised both by direct seeding in arid regions or planting of nursery raised seeding.

According to E Panneer Selvam, a pioneer in bio-diesel manufacture and editor of Jatropha Times (now defunct), the Tamil Nadu government in 2007 launched a systematic jatropha cultivation programme with technology backup and 50 per cent subsidy to farmers for procuring saplings. The Tamil Nadu Agriculture University was entrusted with the task of producing quality saplings and allotted Rs 4.98 crore for the project.

A Centre of Excellence in Biofuels was set up in the university for which the Indian Council of Agricultural Research had sanctioned Rs 1.49 crore. Preliminary experiments carried out revealed jatropha bio-gas can be also an alternative to liquid petroleum gas (LPG). Indian Railways, meanwhile, experimented with jatropha bio-diesel to run trains.

South-West Railway, in fact, began planting 20 lakh jatropha saplings on unutilised land on both sides of the of the track, giving it a green canopy. The whole thing was sabotaged by the Planning Commission as its Deputy Chairman at the time, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, was obsessed with the idea of developing hydrogen as alternate fuel for all transport vehicles, including trains. The Government of India has no system of doing a pro forma appraisal of its departments. As a result, many worthwhile projects are allowed to die and no one is held responsible.

Researchers at IIT Kharagpur have developed a new technology called ‘soil-to-soil’ for the manufacture of biofuel which will make the process cheaper, quicker and pollution-free. Developed at the PK Sinha Centre for Biofuel at IIT Kharagpur, 2G ethnol can be produced from various naturally available lignocellulosic components. Lignocellulose refers to dry plant matter which needs to be treated chemically to produce ethnol. The chemical treatment process contributes to polluting the environment.

According to Dr Rintu Banerjee, professor in the Department of Agriculture and Food Engineering, the researchers have replaced the chemical treatment process with enzymes which degrade the lignin, thereby making the manufacturing process pollution free. Lignin is a complex organic polymer deposited in the cell wall of many plants making them woody.

“Unlike the chemical treatment, here the waste product is pollution free and hence utilising the residual biomass to organic fertiliser is possible. It is soil-to-soil technology, an integral process where we are using natural resources to extract gaseous and liquid biofuel and then converting the wastes into bio-fertiliser. It is a unique and integrated approach which we have developed in our lab,” Dr Banerjee explained.

The green leafy part of corn and sugarcane plants, the waste part of paddy straw, bamboo, banana plant, pineapple and cotton plants, kans grass, castor plant and even non-edible weeds that grow in dry wasteland and a mix of all had been used by the IIT researchers to produce biofuel and the technology is ready for industry use.

Fossil fuels have been the prime source of energy for more than a century. Their rapidly increasing consumption and consequent depletion of reserves clearly show that it cannot last forever. Seventy-five per cent of India’s fossil fuel requirements are met by imports. Rising world prices of crude oil and petroleum products are a matter of grave concern for India. Biodiesel is one of the best options to meet our fuel requirements in future.

Among the many plant species that can yield oil as a source of energy in the form of biodiesel, jatropha has been found the most suitable owing to its short gestation period, hardy nature, high and quality oil content. In addition to production of biodiesel, promotion of jatropha plantation will generate tremendous job opportunities among the rural poor. The byproducts obtained during the process of converting jatropha oil into biodiesel yield bio-fertilisers and glycerol which add value to the crop.

Bio-diesel as fuel has many advantages over the conventional diesel fuel like safer handling and transport, greater thermal efficiency, self-processing, high octane and low emission of air polluting gases. Bio-diesel is attested low pollutant fuel which is accepted world over by engine manufacturers, is safe to handle and requires no infrastructure for its distribution and marketing. It should be developed and deployed as a substitute for the conventional petrodiesel and save the consumer from the government’s profligacy.

The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of The Statesman Print Journalism School.