Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Lot has been written about the promise of bio-fuels which are considered sustainable as compared to the non-renewable fossil fuels. Food technologists have profound interest in this area due to two reasons. First as a citizen there is grave concern regarding the deteriorating climatic changes attending relentless burning of fossil fuels and global warming that is changing the very face of this planet. Then comes the critical shortages experienced in the edible oil availability as there is a growing tendency, especially in many developed countries to divert edible oils for automobiles. In India almost 40% of vegetable oil requirements are met out of imports and any fluctuations in global prices of oils, especially Palm oil is bound to have serious repercussions on its economy.

Bio-fuel can be in solid, liquid or gaseous form derived from relatively recently dead biological materials and it can be produced from any carbon sources, most common being photosynthetic plants which fix solar light and atmospheric carbon dioxide to make carbohydrates in abundance. Two strategies which can help in bio-fuel production are: (a) conversion of carbohydrates and sugars into alcohol for use singly or in combination with fossil fuel and (b) use of plant oils which are triglycerides. According to the National Bio-fuel Policy of GOI (NBFP), announced on September 11, 2008 the current E5 fuel (5% ethanol) regime will move to E10 regime by 2012 and then to E20 regime by 2017. Bio-diesel fuel will be mostly from plants like Jatropa to be taken up in waste lands and marginal lands across the country through long term leasing arrangements. Minimum Support Price also is expected to be worked out to stimulate growing of these plants.

As the country is facing a sugar glut, sugar cane juice conversion to alcohol is likely to be encouraged so as to reduce the stock by 2 million tons. As a short measure alcohol import from Brazil is also on the horizon. Many of the sugar factories already have facilities to ferment molasses into ethanol and no extra investment will be required for augmenting the production. Probably sugar being a politically sensitive commodity, GOI is treading a cautious path as far as this route to fuel self sufficiency is concerned because of the apparent nexus between the sugar business and the political landscape that prevail in the country. Besides sugarcane is a water intensive crops precluding its cultivation on more lands. There are other carbon sources which can be converted into ethanol, the most abundant being cellulosic materials which have no food value for human beings. But they also have other uses like feeding the livestock and burning for generating heat for day to day life. Bagasse is already being used for co-generation in many sugar mills and as such it is not a material of preferred choice. Conversion of Corn or Tapioca into glucose through amylase/mineral acid technology does not lend itself to any massive operations because of their prevailing uses as food and industrial source of starch.

Use of plant oils, some of which also are consumed as a source of biological energy in human diets, is fraught with some grave consequences. India consumes about 15 million tons of plant oils for food and non-food purposes. Any diversion is bound to tell on the edible oil prices which will create further imbalances in availability of this crucial diet constituent. Thus oils from Oil Palm, Soybean, Sesame, Mustard etc rule themselves out on this account. Other sources such as jatropa, pongamia, algae etc may be of some promise but how far their supply line can be assured is a million dollar question. The NBFP document does mention about these non edible oil sources and offers some incentives for farmers to raise these crops in government lands, guaranteeing minimum support prices but there is no definite road map as to achieving any significant targets that will reduce our fossil fuel imports substantially. IT is time that GOI approaches this issue in a holistic way by revisiting out agricultural policy to integrate food and fuel needs of the nation on a long term basis instead of treating bio-fuels separately. Prima facie bio-fuels from non-edible sources of oil looks as most promising sustainable source of energy, not the gasohol project. Large scale cultivation of these plants will also help controlling CO2 build up to some extent.

With the crude oil imports crossing 120 million tons in 2007-08 and the domestic production stagnating at 32 million tons, there is a sense of urgency in finding a long term solution to the energy crunch that is facing the country. The market situation is such that 80% of the fossil fuel is processed into diesel which is used extensively for transportation and power generation. Under these circumstances will the NBFP, as being enunciated, really help to save the situation in the foreseeable future. Unlikely.


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