Biodiesel Breakthrough in India

Renewable fuel source made from inedible shrub

4 min read

29 September--Next month, a sports utility vehicle or SUV--the very symbol of disregard for the environment--will roll out of a DaimlerChrysler assembly plant in Toledo, Ohio, but this one will be powered by an environmentally friendly fuel blend that includes diesel derived from locally grown soy beans.

The main general attraction of so-called biodiesel is that in principle it is carbon-neutral and therefore has no net impact on the climate--when the plants from which it's made are regrown, they consume the carbon dioxide emitted when the fuel is burned.

Globally, edible oil is the predominant source of raw material with soybean and rapeseed providing more than 90 percent of the 95 million liters of biodiesel used in the United States and 80 percent of the 163 million L of biodiesel used in the European Union. But countries like India cannot spare food for use in its automobiles. So a federal Indian laboratory has now shown that biodiesel can be made relatively cheaply from the nonedible seeds of a tropical plant, with the quality matching stringent biodiesel standards of Europe. DaimlerChrysler has already test-run two C-class Mercedes-Benz cars on this lab-produced biodiesel for a total of more than 5000 kilometers and is preparing to scale up the experiment to make fuel at small-scale refineries.

The Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI) in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, has developed a process to refine oil from the seeds of Jatropha curcas , a tropical shrub that grows well on degraded lands, is not eaten by animals, and is highly resistant to pests and disease.

Making biodiesel commercially viable is becoming an imperative for India. According to the Indian Economic Survey 2003-04, at $20 billion, petroleum products constitute more than 30 percent of India’s import bill, and 40 percent of that is diesel. The country consumed 33.75 million tons of diesel during 2003 and consumption is growing at 5.6 percent annually. Use of biodiesel, both as a 20 percent blend, called B-20, and in its pure form, B-100, can reduce the crude oil import bill by 20 percent, says the survey.

Moreover, a renewable fuel will help reduce India's carbon dioxide emissions. Vehicular pollution has increased eightfold in the last 20 years, and India's total carbon emissions are increasing at an estimated 3.2 percent per annum, against 3.9 percent in China and 1.3 percent in the United States.

As one of the largest importers of edible oils for food, India has no option for biodiesel but to use inedibles such as Jatropha. Seeds of more than a half dozen nonedible plants have been tested in different parts of the country. Jatropha is favored, as it is thought to be capable of growing on more than 33 million of the 130 million hectares of wasteland across the country. The German University of Hohenheim, a partner in the research, has done extensive studies on this plant in Mexico, Mali, and other countries. It has developed pest- and disease-resistant and high-yielding varieties that are being grown in India as part of a five-year project that began in 2003.

Biodiesel is made by transesterification, a process that is thankfully much simpler than it sounds. It is a chemical process in which an oil or fat reacts with an alcohol, often methanol, in the presence of a catalyst to produce glycerin and methyl esters. The most common catalysts are sodium or potassium hydroxide. The byproduct, glycerin, is then recovered for use in scores of products like soaps, food, cosmetics, medicines, and dyes. Processing Jatropha is, in fact, a little easier than processing many edible oils, because its fat content is very low. So, researchers say, it does not require degumming, the initial processing step of washing oil with water, salts, and acids in order to remove waxes, phosphates and other impurities needed to make biodiesel from edible oils.

Making biodiesel from Jatropha-seed oil, or any oil for that matter, is not difficult. The challenge is manufacturing high-quality biodiesel at a reasonable cost, according to Pushpito K. Ghosh, director of CSMCRI. Though oil companies have already developed processes for making biodiesel, the Indian laboratory’s contribution, claims Ghosh, lies in developing an energy-saving, cost-effective process that improves the method of residue removal from the waste stream.

According to the Automobile Research Association of India, in Pune, the biofuel meets the country’s current emission standards, though new more stringent standards, equivalent to those used now in Europe will be adopted in April 2005. In addition, the fuel’s cetane number--a measure of ignition quality--is higher than what’s required in the United States and in Europe. The higher the cetane number, the easier the fuel ignites when it is injected into the engine. ”Since our biofuel quality is very good, India has a huge opportunity to reduce transportation cost, develop its vast wasteland and generate rural employment,” he says. The hope is that increased cultivation of wasteland will ease the situation of poor farmers. Thousands of them in the state of Andhra Pradesh committed suicide over the past six years during a series of droughts.

Pricing in India is not an issue at this stage, even though biodiesel at US $0.60-0.65 cents per liter is currently slightly higher than the petroleum diesel, which costs $0.56 per liter. ”Presently, as the biodiesel program is limited and has no credit on the economies of scale, the biodiesel will be more expensive than petrol diesel,” says D.K. Tuli, CEO of the Indian Oil Technologies Ltd. in Faridabad, Haryana, a division of the country’s largest oil company, Indian Oil Corp. ”However, if we take examples from elsewhere in the world, each country has supported biodiesel programs by tax concessions, and examples are many.” Indian Oil is running an elaborate exercise in Haryana to fuel the Haryana State Roadways buses with a biodiesel blend.

There are still several problems standing in the way of a viable Indian biodiesel industry. For one, though government officials estimate 20-30 million hectares could be cultivated with Jatropha, getting the concerned government agencies actually to provide the land is still to be done. Also, there is no guarantee that what is carried out in model projects can really be replicated on a large scale.

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