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Biofuel – Potential Future Crop of Farmers

A.K. Shyam

Oil, which served as the major driving energy source in the world is fast depleting forcing human kind to look for an equally, if not more competitive alternate source to sustain the demanding need. Bio-fuels and hydrogen have attracted the attention as the fastest growing programs in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. There have been efforts in developing and advancing technology for biomass energy application such as bio-fuels, biomass power for electricity and bio-products that could replace petroleum based fuels.

Bio-fuel is produced either from renewable vegetable oils both edible and non-edible. Biodiesel is a simple, biodegradable, nontoxic and essentially free from sulphur and aromatics and can be used in compression-ignition engines with little or no modifications. Higher cetane number improves the ignition quality even when blended in petroleum diesel.

Trans-esterification – a process of exchanging the alkoxy group of an ester compound by another alcohol of a vegetable oil results in the bio-fuel (biodiesel) production. This was achieved as early as 1853 by scientists E.Duffy and J. Patrick; many years prior to the first diesel engine became functional by Rudolf Diesel. This was powered by peanut oil – a bio-fuel, though not biodiesel, since it was not trans-esterified.

Legislative support and national policies have been initiated in several countries around the world. Biodiesel is registered as an alternate fuel with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and meets clean diesel standards established by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and is also approved by the US Departments of Energy (DOE) and of Transportation (DOT). The feed stock for bio-diesel production in US is Soya bean, sunflower and rapeseed in the European Union. European Union, under the renewable fuel program includes reduction on dependency on crude oil and achieves greenhouse gas reduction by 8%.

While ethanol, CNG and LNG warrant separate storage and dispensing arrangements, bio-diesel can be used easily without major modification in the vehicle engine. Biodiesel is not only safe to handle but also has higher flash point than conventional diesel and thus provides greater efficiency. Bio-fuel addition to petroleum products allows complete fuel burn thereby reducing air pollution unlike, gasoline and conventional diesel. The cost to convert bio-fuel source to U.S. gallon of ethanol is likely to be cut down to $1.07 by 2020 from the current cost of $2.50.



Bio-fuels are a better option in view of the depleting fossil fuel resources, environmental advantage, energy security and optimal for predominantly rural India. Regular bio-fuel production from edible and non-edible oils is in progress in many countries like United States, Europe, Australia, Japan, Malaysia and others.

Saffola, Sunflower, Soya bean etc are examples of edible oil used in United States, Australia, Germany, and France. But, non-edible oils available in plenty in India hold a great diversity across the country. Considering the position - fourth - that India holds with 22 m tons of oil seed production and 7 m tons of oil production, there is plenty of scope of deploying the non-edible oil species for the sustenance of the agriculture and automobile sectors.

Later, interest was raising due to the large pollution reduction benefits from the use of bio-diesel, in the 1990s. For 2003, western European bio-diesel production capacity was estimated at about 2 million metric tons per year largely produced through the trans-esterification process, about one-half there of in Germany (440,000 and 350,000 MT in France and Italy, respectively). In the United States, 10 percent of all federal vehicles were to be using alternative fuels to set an example for the private automotive and fuel industries. Bio-diesel consumption in the US is expected to increase by 40% in 2002 from 41,000 MT in 2001.


Advantages of Bio-diesel

The bio-diesel has a number of advantages:
• Blends of 20% bio-diesel with 80% petroleum diesel can be used in unmodified diesel engines. Bio-diesel can be used in its pure form but many require certain engine modifications to avoid maintenance and performance problems.
• It was stated that about half of the bio-diesel industry can use recycled oil or fat, the other half being soybean, or rapeseed oil according to the origin of these feed stocks.
• Bio-diesel is nontoxic, biodegradable. It reduces the emission of harmful pollutants (mainly particulates) from diesel engines (80% less CO2 emissions, 100% less sulfur dioxide) but emissions of nitrogen oxides (precursor of ozone) are increased.
• Bio-diesel has a high cetane number (above 100, compared to only 40 for diesel fuel). Cetane number is a measure of a fuel's ignition quality. The high cetane numbers of bio-diesel contribute to easy cold starting and low idle noise.
• The use of bio-diesel can extend the life of diesel engines because it is more lubricating and, furthermore, power output are relatively unaffected by bio-diesel.
• Bio-diesel replaces the exhaust odor of petroleum diesel with a more pleasant smell of popcorn or French fries.


Relevance to India

Bio-fuel deserves serious consideration at this juncture as potential source of energy in the future. Bio-fuel becomes all the more relevant to India as India produces just 30% of crude oil requirement thereby banking for a substantial percentage, on import. Moreover, diesel constitutes 80% of the automobile fuel consumed in the country.

Although there is enough information available in India on a number of non-edible oil species, Jatropha curcas and Pongamia glabra seem to have outscored the attention of scientists and consequently, details of greater relevance are available on these species.

The potential of such alternative sources of energy makes a lot of sense to India. Indian government has also taken steps in this direction, with the Indian Railways, largest users of diesel and also owners of large areas of land, showing keen interest in biodiesel. The Railways have decided planting these bio-crops along the rail tracks. In fact, the rail line between Mumbai and Delhi is planted with Jatropha and the train runs on 15-20% biodiesel thereby serving two objectives - lowering emissions and providing enough lubricity to the diesel.

It has been envisaged that investments in bio-energy holds a great potential to redistribute wealth, revitalize rural economy and eliminate some of the social and economic factors that drive farmers towards cities and into migrant working class. Biomass energy has been playing a crucial role in increasing the amount of energy sources and ensuring energy security.

The potential bio-diesel yielding trees in India are : Jatropha curcas (Ratanjot), Pongamia pinnata (Karanj), Calophyllum inophyllum (Nagchampa), Hevea brasiliensis (Rubber), Calotropis gigantea (Ark), Euphorbia tirucalli, Simarouba glauca. Of the above species, sufficient information on Jatropha curcas is already available and the species is ranked at top among them. The residual cake after oil extraction can be used as organic fertilizer

Jatropha curcas, also called physic nut, is used to produce the non-edible Jatropha oil, for making candles and soap, and as a major ingredient in the production of biodiesel. The trees produce 1600 liters of oil per hectare. The cake remaining after the oil is pressed can be used as feed in digesters and gasifiers to produce biogas for cooking and in engines, or the cakes can be used for fertilizing, and sometimes even as animal fodder, alternatively, the entire seed (with oil) can be used in digesters to produce biogas. Large plantings and nurseries of this tree have been undertaken in India by numerous research institutions, and by women’s Self Help Groups, who use a system of microcredit to ease poverty among the nation’s semi-literate population of women. Extracts from this species have also been shown to have anti-tumor activity. The seeds can be used as a remedy for constipation, wounds can be dressed with the sap, and the leaves can be boiled to obtain malaria and fever remedy.

Bio-diesel is one area which can transform the scenario in the Indian oil sector. With the limited experience of Bio-diesel in the country and elsewhere, we can understand its potential and also problems associated with it. With the concerted effort in R&D both in production and processing, facilitation by government, large scale initiative from the private sector and self-help groups, hassle free financial support from financial institutions. In the near future we will be able to conquer our crude oil need which is our major foreign exchange drain.

In fact, proponents of bio-diesel have formed “Bio-diesel Association of India (BAI)” and are pressing their demand to increase the selling price of bio-diesel which was initially fixed at Rs.25, later revised to Rs. 26.50 by government to make its production economical. At present, farmers are selling jatropha and pongamia for Rs. 12,000/- per ton; processing cost of Rs. 1000/- per ton; de-oiled cake forming 70% fetches around Rs. 1400/- per ton and 30% oil from each ton of raw material.


Relevance to Farmers

Bio-diesel plant in Nairobi, East Africa projected as great potential in agri-business has been attracting hundreds of farmers. Jatropha, oil rich plant which was considered a mere weed until recently has suddenly being talked about as raising star on the biofuel scene. Firms such as D1oils and Sun, UK based with their offer on seeds and technical assistance to farmers in return of sale of their produce have been promoting Jatropha in a big way. The interest has gained such an importance that taskforce to oversee growing Jatropha and explore carbon credits have been mooted in Kenya. All this development has been taking shape despite not being aware of how much energy the plant can produce and at what cost.

The interest on Jatropha has grown immensely owing to its potential to tackle global warming as west has failed to tackle the problem more seriously. Jatropha could be Africa 's first real chance to profit from the booming biofuels market and allow it to solve its energy problems at the same time.

Jatropha, the tropical plant grows in poor and arid soil and can be grown on wasteland. It may not be encouraging to grow Jatropha when one looks at the current production rate as there are number of variables. Jatropha has been estimated to yield 1.7 tons per hectare when grown wild which may be significantly lower than palms in Malaysis. But there have been efforts on enhancing the yield and make it more attractive to farmers. Since the fruits cannot be mechanically harvested, it provides innumerable opportunities on rural employment. British firm who initiated jatropha planting in early 2006 now has 1,75,000 hectares around the world including in India and south-east asia and the first significant volume of harvest may have been realized by the end of 2007.

Green Power East Africa has also initiated its own plantings in Malawi and has trials underway in Kenya with an ultimate target at 1,00,000 hectares.

It has been more or less a similar enthusiasm and interest on Jatropha even in India. In fact, Jatropha seed torches which were often helpful in treading snakes assumes greater significance in its deployment as fuel for running cars and trucks in some parts of India. Enthusiastic men and women have already planted Jatropha saplings which they hope to bear seed in three to four years . The plant will continue to yield for the next 30 or more years. In addition, many projects have been planned by private firsms to feed India’s galloping energy needs. Rapidly evolving bio-fuel market has motivated private firms contracting villagers to grow hard, oil-rich plant in mostly barren plots even. Farmers are indeed pinning their hope that the crop they grow would fuel cars used by rich people.

India plans to replace around five percent of its current 40 million tonnes of annual diesel consumption with jatropha biodiesel within about five years. Nearly half a dozen states have set aside a total of 1.72 million hectares of land for jatropha cultivation and small quantities of the oil were already being sold to industry. "The market for jatropha oil will be a huge one, whether in India or outside," according to UK-based D1 Oils India office, which has contracted farmers in several states to cultivate jatropha. The company was open to selling jatropha oil in the international or domestic market and are optimistic about the future of jatropha in India as the climate is perfect and there is plenty of land.

India is planning to set up test plantations nationwide although such tests have been carried out individually by state governments, universities and institutions. Industry officials said the lack of clarity from the government on taxation and pricing could prove to be a bigger stumbling block. State-run oil firms have not bought much jatropha biodiesel from producers as the cost of production was higher than the government-fixed price of about 25 rupees, or 54 cents per litre. Jatropha is seen as a good bet for India if it wants to cut back on oil imports that account for 70 percent of its needs.

There are suggestions to combine the cultivation with medicinal or other short term crop plants to sustain returns until the stabilization of jatropha crop

One hectare of Jatropha plants will reduce 20 tonnes per year of carbon dioxide for up to 40 years. Feasibility study undertaken by the Energy and Resources Institute of India proves that Jatropha, a non-edible oil crop that can be grown in poor soil at low cost, is commercially feasible as an alternative to Crude Palm Oil.

The Mission Biofuels India Private Limited (MBIPL) is involved in the large scale cultivation of Jatropha Curcas, and Within 6 months, the Jatropha acreage has grown from the initial 22,000 acres to almost 66,000. These plants are in various stages of maturity and will commence to produce seeds in the last quarter of 2007. The Group’s target is to achieve an acreage of 100,000 acres during the 2007 calendar year and 250,000 acres by 2010. To support this objective, the Group has established several nurseries where Jatropha Curcas saplings are grown and supplied to our partner farmers. In addition to this, they have also developed Jatropha seeds procurement business in India where seeds are secured from third party farmers who grow Jatropha Curcus.


Future trend

Typically, biodiesel is made by mixing methanol with lye and vegetable oil and then heating the brew for several hours. This links the methanol to the oils to produce energetic called esters. Unfortunately, heating the mixture is a huge waste of energy, and a major selling point of alternative fuels is efficiency. An enzyme called lipase can link oil to methanol without any extra heating, but the pure protein is expensive

As glycerol production forms 10% of bio-diesel production, there has been a concern on hyper glutted glycerol market. It has been found that crude glycerol can be used to support microbial cell growth and production of polyester bio-polymers which can be used as plastics or adhesives and bio-surfactants. Bio-polymers from crude glycerol could be used to produce products as coatings, resins, foams and agents for remediation of polluted environments.

Scientists at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology have found a much better way to make biodiesel. Their new method could lower the cost and increase the energy efficiency of fuel production.

Instead of mixing the ingredients and heating them for hours, the chemical engineers pass sunflower oil and methanol through a bed of pellets made from fungal spores. An enzyme produced by the fungus does the work -- making biodiesel with impressive efficiency.

Why bother purifying the lipase? It would be easier to just find an organism that produces plenty of the enzyme and squish it into pellets. In this case, the fungus Metarhizium anisopliae does the trick.


Jatropha curcas L.


Since oil from Jatropha seeds can be extracted and processed into bio-diesel then mixed with traditional diesel engine fuel, the plant's residue from this process represents an alternative resource for making briquettes which are blocks of flammable material used to start and maintain fires. Local sale of charcoal briquettes made with Jatropha plant waste from bio-diesel production can hit some PhP 1.1 billion next year.

One percent blend will generate about 300,000 metric tons (MT) of Jatropha waste which can be made into some 75,000 MT of charcoal briquettes as per results of a study. Government is promoting Jatropha as an alternative fuel source to help reduce the country's dependence on costly imported traditional fuel which is among sources of carbon dioxide emissions.

Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC) in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania has been developing a method to produce bio-diesel directly from oil-bearing materials including soya bean flakes. The oils or fats are treated with 18% methanol forming bio-diesel as extractant, eliminating the need to isolate oil before converting into oil thus reducing production cost and expand amount of available fuel feedstock.

Recently, several huge research centers have sprung up to develop better ways to make bio-fuels. Considering that a handful of chemical engineers can accomplish so much on what appears to be a shoestring budget, the future of alternative fuels looks pretty good -- but maybe a bit slimy.

Author: A.K.Shyam, 442 C/1, I Main, 1st ‘A’ Cross, Ideal Homes Society, RR Nagar, Bangalore - 560 098