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Can Biofuel contribute to Net-Zero aspiration to save our planet?

By Debendra Baruah
Can Biofuel contribute to Net-Zero aspiration to save our planet?

Photo: Energy Conservation Laboratory, Department of Energy, Tezpur University

Tezpur, Aug 10: Sir Rudolf Diesel's visionary research on peanut oil (1893) to make his own invention, the internal combustion engine,self-reliance (Atmanirbhar) is honoured by celebrating the World Biofuel Day. This appears significant as fuel production and consumption have been at centre stage breaking geo-political boundaries and self-reliance on fuel becomes common aspiration of all nations. India has strong reasons to reduce the foreign dependency on fuels,which is achievable through strategy of gradual substitution of petroleum-based fuels (e.g., diesel, petrol, LPG, CNG etc.) by indigenously produced biofuels (e.g., biodiesel, bioethanol, biogas, bio-CNG, producer gas etc.).

Carbon neutrality of fuel: a major climate change concern

Philosophically there is no difference between the petroleum-based fuels and biofuels as per as sources and applications are concerned. Both are the products of photosynthesis and both emits greenhouse gases (GHG), chiefly carbon-di-oxide, when burnt for required energy (heat, mechanical power or electricity). However, the petroleum resources are historically deposited, photosynthesised atmospheric carbon, whose present-day consumption vis-à-vis emissions have been critically disturbing the balance in atmosphere leading to global warming and climate change. The nature-gifted photosynthesis process sequesters atmospheric carbon-di-oxide. Therefore, despite of identical level of GHG emissions, biofuels are considered carbon neutral as emissions during consumption and sequestration during growing of biomass are simultaneous. To avoid offsetting of such neutrality, the additional inputs of carbon based resources for the entire chain including (i) production of biomass, (ii) supply of biomass (collection, handling and transportation), (iii) processing into biofuel and byproducts and (iv) supply to market should be minimum. True carbon neutrality of biofuel has remained as a challenge as majority of resources (fertilisers or other chemicals, diesel for operations of farm machinery and transportation, electricity from conventional sources etc.) required for the above-mentioned production chain are petroleum or fossil based. Thus, support of a comprehensive plan of carbon neutral renewable sources (organic fertiliser, renewable sourced electricityetc.) appears critical for deriving benefits of carbon neutrality of biofuel.

Net-Zero Emission: The must to be achieved target to save our planet

Net zero emissions has been the recent buzz words to bring the global community to think seriously for a common target of emission reduction. This is because of the conclusive evidence of global catastrophe to be caused by anthropogenic GHG emissions where carbon dioxide emission attributed by fossil fuel system is one of the major contributors. Net zero emission refers to an overall balance between (i) greenhouse gas emissions produced and (ii) greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere. The inherent characteristic of biofuels' carbon neutrality brings a ray of hope for its substantial contribution towards net-zero emission.

Status of biofuel production: long path ahead for India

Anaerobic digestion, thermal decomposition, transesterification (the chemical conversion process of triglycerides with alcohol into alkyl esters with the help of a catalyst), and fermentation are a few examples of relatively well-known processes for making biofuels (biogas, producer gas, biodiesel, and bioethanol). Depending upon the nature of the feedstock sources, biofuels are generally known as (i) First generation (agricultural food products), (ii) Second generation (lingo-cellulosic feedstock, agro-residues, and non-edible plant biomass), (iii) Third generation (algae) and (iv) Fourth generation biofuel (genetically modified algae).

Energy generation from biofuel is mainly in the form of liquid fuel used in engines, gaseous fuel used for thermal energy generation or electricity production and solid fuel used in incinerators for thermal or electricity generation. Biofuel technologies are almost matured and currently state-of-the-art energy generation technologies are available for most types of the biofuels with certain technologies still at R&D level.

As per report, biofuels account for about 6.8% of the global renewable energy-based electricity generation. Moreover, globally more than 1.70 million barrels of oil equivalent biofuels are produced daily where India's contribution has been reported to be about 2.3%. It is also predicted that biofuel demand will increase by 41 billion litres by 2026.

India has intensified its action plan to promote biofuels through several schemes and policies including ethanol blending, Sustainable Alternative Towards Affordable Transportation (SATAT), GOBAR (Galvanising Organic Bio-Agro Resources) - DHAN scheme, New National Biogas and Organic Manure Programme etc. However, a holistically prepared strategic plan targeting social and developmental benefits would require caring for each inch of land (and water body) which contribute the biomass resources for sustainable production of biofuel. The relatively longer gestation period required to implement the ambitious bamboo based bioethanol generation plan in Assam may be considered as a concern specially in regards of available indigenous R&D capabilities to deal with all local dynamics.

As biomasses are distributed resources, a decentralised production plan appears favourable provided affordable technologies are available at all scale. Besides, scale/level of production, the sustainable and commercial utilisation of by-products of biofuel production (chemical, organic fertiliser etc.) have been seen as a major concern for economy of industrial biofuel production.

There are fundamental differences between conventional and biofuel systems in terms of exploration, extraction, refining and transportation. Raw petroleum resources are located several km away from refineries.Refined fuels are transported or pumped to end-use locations at cost additional energy input. However, robust technologies coupled with fully established century old marketing chain favours the petroleum-based fuels over biofuel despite serious environmental concerns. Aggressive target-oriented R&D backed by policy support of Governments could only change the trend in favour of Biofuel.

About the author

Dr Debendra Baruah is a professor and Head of Department of Energy at Tezpur University. He is also the Director of Internal Quality Assurance Cell, Center for Internal Quality Assurance and Centre for Distance and Online Education. He has significant contribution in the investigation of Multi crop Residue Processing Technology Package for Production of Fuel and Fertiliser: SERB (IMPRINT), Government of India, along with several other investigations in the field of energy.

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