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  Strategies for biodiesel

Biodiesel is at a cross-roads today. If one strayed from its appropriateness for local energy needs, chances are, the many grandiloquent biodiesel-farm scenarios that are being proposed will kill it.

In the West, biodiesel is produced mostly from field crops like rape-seed and soya. The debate on how much petroleum products -as fertilisers, equipment fuel etc- are consumed to produce their bio-equivalents is quite relevant. Will biodiesel enthusiasts in the West prevail if they are not subsidised by state policy?

Attempts to create distribution networks that match those of the petroleum companies will also fail. The petro industry built its empire when oil was practically free of cost and enough margins existed to invest in distribution assets. It makes little money sense to produce biodiesel in large acreages and then haul them to be made available all along highways.

D1 Oils plc of the UK leaps further afar. Its game-plan is nothing less than to harvest jatropha oil in India, haul it across to the UK, process it into biodiesel and market it globally. Until recently, it was constantly in the news signing deals with Indian partners, banks and farmers. It is a listed stock on the London Alternative Investment Market and not surprisingly investors appear to have started doing their sums: the stock has fallen by half in under 8 months.

D1 oils is talking of committing 140,000 hectares to jatropha in India. Many corporates are pondering it and new start-ups are being planned. There is everywhere a buzz about jatropha in India; it is the new mantra. ‘Jatropha is the wonder crop’, is the promotional pitch. ‘It resists droughts and produces plenty of oil that can be processed into biodiesel’.

There are sober voices questioning jatropha’s prospects in India.  Writing to a private list, Dr A D Karve, who knows a thing or two about rural India has said, “I have yet to meet a farmer who gets more than 1 ton/ha of jatropha nuts”. He says the soap industry has been buying non-edible oils at Rs 30 a kilo. Rural folk have gained an income from this market because “these oilseeds are only collected from wild plants and therefore the seed is available at a relatively low price”. Do note that jatropha is drought ‘resistant’, meaning it doesn’t die for lack of water; it does not mean it produces copiously under drought conditions.

Karve’s phrase ‘collected from wild plants’ is the key. If seeds are gathered from natural habitats and then milled for oil, biodiesel will be profitable. It’s moot however, if large investments in creating plantations will lead to profitable yields. They will bring up all the questions being asked of Western biodiesel farmers.

For India at least, gathering seeds from existing stands of trees or planting wastelands with jatropha or pongamia and then using the resulting oil for local needs, makes sense. There is always great demand in rural India for raw, filtered vegetable oils to be used directly or as as a mixture with diesel.  Auto rickshaws, vans, lorries and jeeps shuttling within a 50 km radius of villages will be eager buyers. There are also thousands of pump- and gen- sets that use diesel oil. There are already classic successes of local, integrated biodiesel economies. Even Joshua Tickell of the Veggie Van fame made a success of biodiesel using a cheap local resource: discarded cooking oil.

The best strategy for India will have these keywords: gathered seeds, wasteland planting, local milling and local use. A good news along these lines is of a company trying to extract oil from rubber tree seeds and cashew kernels. Here would be profits from waste and without diverting agricultural land away from food crops. George Monbiot’s arguments against a global biodiesel market inversely argues for just such local endeavours.

You might think that these efforts are tiny and too insignificant to make a dent on the global energy scene. You would be wrong. The problem is with mind-sets. One type realises that water for example is a very local resource and the only sustainable solutions can be extensive rain-water harvesting and aquifer recharging. The other mind-set —alas, of most influential leaders— dreams of inter-linking rivers. Energy too must be approached as a local issue, which when solved, will release enough premium oil for unavoidable industrial-strength uses.

Large scale biodiesel generation is possible using local resources. The University of New Hampshire, USA has been working on harvesting algae grown by biological waste in rivers and streams. It says: “While traditional crops have yields of around 50-150 gallons of biodiesel per acre per year, algae can yield 5,000-20,000 gallons per acre per year. Algae grow best off of waste streams- agricultural, animal, or human.” In India, such algae could be better eaten by fish and enter our food-chain. So, this algae technology might not get past the Monbiot-filter.

But how about this exciting waste recovery biodiesel technology that as a bonus, is a lethal weapon as well, against global warming. Dr Isaac Berzin of MIT, Boston, USA has demonstrated that CO2 in power plant exhausts —that now pollute the atmosphere— can be made to accelerate growth of a carefully selected algae. A combustible oil is squeezed out from the algal soup and from the remaining dried flakes ethanol can be made. A report says, “ can produce 15,000 gallons of biodiesel per acre. Just 60 gallons are produced from soybeans… one 1,000 megawatt power plant using his system could produce more than 40 million gallons of biodiesel and 50 million gallons of ethanol a year.” Berzin has founded the GreenFuel Technologies to commercialise his invention.

A biodiesel world is indeed possible with right strategies. Technologies and solutions do exist that are not a threat to food security or the environment. It is good to remain wise and interested. Here’s a collection of related links for the enthusiast.