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Energy

Mar 06, 2006
Strategies for biodiesel

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, “...it 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.

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