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Energy

Sep 19, 2003
Rising bio-diesel tide

A workshop on biodiesels in Bangalore on Sep 6 and 7 revealed the heartening progress the idea has made in India in the last three years. It was organised by Prof. U Shrinivasa’s SuTRA along with JSS Academy of Technical Education and Samagra Vikas; it was sponsored entirely by the Dept. of Science and Technology, Govt of India. About 350 delegates participated and 40 papers were presented.

Those that attended this and the earlier workshop about a year ago, were struck by the increased participation by universities, research centres and commercial firms indicating that they believe that a serious biodiesel economy is in the offing.

Clearly the pilot project at Kegganahalli that Prof Shrinivasa pioneered four years ago has triggered this new wave of biodiesel interest. The road map drawn out by him is distinguished by some uniquely Indian approaches:

--one, the Indian biodiesel future will be powered by oil seed bearing trees [OSBT] and not by field crops yielding seasonal oil seeds preferred in the US and Europe. Also the OSBT chosen are the non-edible variety unlike Malaysia’s palm oil.

--two, straight vegetable oils [SVO] from OSBTs will be encouraged straightaway for use in rural pumps and generator sets, and refined --that is transesterified-- true biodiesel can wait for volumes to build.

Given this, it was surprising how many papers dealt with the arcana of transesterification. There are at least four centres --among them Indian Oil Corpn-- researching the process. Perhaps that is very important too because if petrodiesel blends are to be decreed, refined SVO would be the candidate.

There is every indication that Govt of India is going to mandate a 5% blend of biodiesel with petrodiesel. That would be a neat parallel with the 5% to 10% blend of ethanol with gasoline that has already been decreed resulting is a lucrative new line of business for sugar mills. Given India’s diesel market size however --$7 billion a year--, current production of biodiesel is nowhere near what is needed. It will be a decade before there’d be enough OSBT to serve the blends market.

So leaving the tech-talk to nerds, we need to reclaim more wastelands, plant more OSBT, create greater awareness about their profitability and encourage local use in field engines, tractors, threshers, jeeps and vans. Samagra Vikas one of the organisers and an NGO very active in this field exposed the vast gap between government statistics and ground realities. They had been told that the annual Pongamia Oil production was 200 metric tonnes. When they went deeper and sought out suppliers they found ready sources for over 3000 tonnes—that too, within a week of low profile ad.

What that reveals is that India operates in several layers. Unseen by many, a robust Pongamia market exists right now. People need not be taught the value of this oil. They only need to be exposed to new possibilities-- like say, with diesel engines. There are today about 5 mega watts of pure SVO using gensets distributed in about 100 locations today. So the excitement is on and growing. Poor Indians are quick to spot a sensible idea.

Happily, many biodiesel enthusiasts are not waiting for academic niceties-- they are out there stoking their biodiesel passions. Y B Ramakrishna is a businessman in electronics, lives with his family on a 24 acre farm near Hassan and has 600 Pongamia trees growing. But he is not waiting for yields-- he buys Pongamia oil from the market to run his 5 HP engine. “There is suddenly a new market for the oil which has always been available in my area. My buying it has driven up prices to Rs.29 a litre which is higher than petrodiesels, but volumes will arrive in time and level prices,” he says. V Balasubramaniam, IAS [rtd] is an ex-bureaucrat and a biodiesel advocate. He has the ears of many reigning bureaucrats and ceaselessly seeks to persuade use of biodiesel. G Sreenivas used to be a senior banker overseas but now cultivates OSBT in 1000 acres in Andhra Pradesh. TreeOils is a public limited company where he and other biodiesel believers have invested fully knowing they have a long wait before returns will flow. Dr Ashok Raina is signing up contract farmers who are being advanced the capital to raise OSBT with the understanding they will sell their produce to his company, Phytotron. Project Return in Delhi seeks to cause reverse migration of urban slum dwellers explaining to them the promise of farming OSBT.Capt Sanjay Gupta delightfully for GoodNewsIndia, declared himself a biodiesel convert because of the stories at this website. He is an airline pilot whose new routine for a rainy day is to drive out from his home Gurgaon near Delhi and to plant OSBT seeds in every vacant space. So far he has pushed in 15,000 seeds and 1000 saplings.

Thus, little known Indians are hauling the currently modest biodiesel juggernaut. Probably the most striking event of the meet was how a jeep bridged the chasm between academic research and an impatient crowd of enthusiasts. The jeep’s tank had been partitioned to hold both petrodiesel and SVO. It is to start and stop on diesel but cruise on SVO. MICO-Bosch, Bangalore which evaluated this hybrid vehicle was full of reservations but the eyes of a large number of rural delegates lit up. They were aware how ubiquitous these hardy irons are in rural India. They are key short distance haulers and transporters on which many entrepreneurs’ fortunes depend. They are often several years old, much abused and run down but nevertheless fulfil a need. SVO use can scarcely harm them whatever a purist may say.
It is through real world solutions like a SVO-run jeep that a biodiesel economy will emerge. Prof Shrinivasa’s SuTRA is pushing just that approach; it is SuTRA which catalysed the jeep conversion. The jeep is headed for the jungles of Adilabad where tribal folk run SVO-gensets for their power needs. The impact of a SVO-jeep for transportation can be imagined.

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