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Aug 22, 2005
Biodiesel is on centerstage now

In the last three years awareness of tree based non edible oils as alternatives to petro-diesels has risen in India. Unfortunately jatropha has received the greater attention to the exclusion of others, notably pongamia pinnata.

Still, there’s now a buzz around the country. In Chhatttisgarh, the Chief Minister Mr Raman Singh has been driving his Tata Safari for close to four months on jatropha oil. His state has also set up a 3 tonnes per day refinery to promote the use of oil in tractors, jeeps and pump sets.

Tata Motors in Pune is running 43 of its 150 fleet buses on a 10% biodiesel blend. 20 buses in the Gurgaon depot of the Haryana state roadways are running on a 5% blend. The railways meanwhile, having satisfied themselves during initial trials, have decided to run five trains out of Lucknow on a 10% biodiesel blend. In this, they have worked closely with Indian Oil Corporation [IOC] to evaluate the technology. The Petroleum Conservation Research Association [PCRA] of IOC maintains a good FAQ page where the railway’s interest is explained.

Railways has great synergies with biodiesel use. It is the largest consumer of diesel oil in the country. And it is one of the largest land owner too. It has enough land along its tracks that will enable all its trains to run on 10% biodiesel blend. What is more, its lands along the tracks, are distributed throughout the country. That will ensure low processing costs and easy transportation to points of use, while generating employment across the country. There can’t be a greater advertisement of biodiesel’s relevance to India.

Railways choice of jatropha is understandable, because for engine drivers, visibility is important and jatropha, being more bush-like is suited for planting along the tracks. [About 500 hectares in collaboration with IOC are now being planned.] But hasn’t there been a neglect of pongamia pinnata, a tree native to India since ancient times? It lives for 80 years -as against jatropha’s 40- and is just as hardy in hostile environments. Professor Udipi Shrinivasa has explored and investigated all aspects of pongamia based biodiesels for over 5 years now. He has demonstrated the generation of electricity among tribal communities -over ten so far- where pongamia trees natively exist in the surrounding jungles. These are marvels in that they are totally autonomous power stations, depending on nothing from the cities; in fact they export surplus pongamia oil. Prof. Shrinivasa’s organisation, Sustainable Transformations offers professional consultancy.

Prof Shrinivasa believes there is enough wastelands in the country to grow between four and five times our liquid fuel needs. Dr S K Chopra, Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources [MNES] has said that if the draft National Policy on Bio Fuels is adopted and a mere 10% is blended with petro-fuels, we would save Rs. 20,000 crore annually. That is about $4 billion. Scale that using Prof Shrinivasa’s estimate, and we are looking at a potential of $170 or thereabouts, with most of the costs given back as wages to Indians all across the country. There can’t be a more compelling good news. There are credible hopes that Prime Minister Singh is convinced of the potential and a Bio Fuel Development Board will come into being soon.

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