Dr Dheeban Chakravarthi Kannan is a Research Fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), engaged in algal biofuel research at TERI. He was in-charge of lab research at algae biofuel company, OriginOil. He has experience with bioreactor designs, algae growth, harvest, lipid extraction and related synergy technologies. He has developed a new solid catalyst process for biodiesel production.
There have been mounting concerns across the world about the detrimental effects of carbon emissions emanating from fossil fuels. The emphasis on renewable energy has been greater than ever before. When it comes to energy, storing energy is as important as generating it. Biofuels have the unique feature of stored and portable energy which enables them to be used for niche applications such as transportation fuels. Transportation fuels are one of the major and critical energy needs of our country. Hence, biofuels are synonymously associated with transportation fuels.
At present, our transportation fuels are fossil-fuel based. About 80 percent of India's crude oil consumption is imported (185 million tonnes/year). This places a huge strain on the nation's economy. Our crude oil import bill is Rs 6,000 billion per year, which amounts to 34 percent of the total import bill. There is a compelling need to pursue biofuels for transportation for energy and economic security in addition to the environmental benefits. But development of biofuels will require well-strategized R&D efforts and policy frameworks. The present transportation fuel consumption of India is 92 million tonnes per year. It is projected to increase to 400-500 million tonnes per year by 2050. So the preparations and developmental plans must be devised now.
There are different types of biofuels which merit attention. The biofuels first intended for development in India were bioethanol from sugarcane molasses and biodiesel from wasteland Jatropha plantations. The production of these biofuels and their blending with petrol and diesel was initiated under National Biofuels Mission from 2003. A National Policy on Biofuels was adopted in 2009. However, the production levels have been modest. Bioethanol production has fluctuated between 0.1 and 0.3 mtoe/year recently and biodiesel production between 0.01 and 0.05 mtoe/year. Ethanol tends to get diverted to portable and industrial markets due to better prices and present Jatropha germplasms are not adequate for wasteland cultivation. The overall scope of these biofuels is limited - about 1 mtoe/year and 10 mtoe/year respectively, due to feedstock availability.
New Generation Fuels
Lignocellulosic biofuels are the next generation biofuels and these are under development. In India, these refer to biofuels from non-fodder agricultural residue and lignocellulosic bioenergy plantations in marginal/waste lands. The scope of these biofuels is high - about 60 mtoe/year. There are different types of fuel conversion technologies and final fuel products. A biochemical process involves pre-treatment of lignocellulosic biomass, hydrolysis of cellulose to sugars and fermentation to ethanol. A thermochemical process involves pyrolysis of biomass and upgrading of resulting bio-oil to drop-in transportation fuels. Commercial production of these fuels is expected to begin in a few years.