Focus on Biofuel – RSTV: In Depth

Participants:

Anchor: Teena Jha

Importance of this Episode:

  • In May 2018, the Union Cabinet approved the National Biofuel Policy to encourage sustainable and alternative fuels and also to cut down its dependence on crude oil imports.
  • 3 Months later, the country has joined an elite group of countries that operate biofuel-powered flights. On the 27th of August, 2018, low-budget carrier SpiceJet flew the countries first Biofuel flight from Dehra Dun to Delhi. The objective of the experiment was to establish biofuels as an effective, environment-friendly option for the aviation sector. Worldwide, the aviation sector is one of the largest emitters of Greenhouse gases (GHG’s) at 2% of the human-induced total.
  • Therefore, the sector’s transition to sustainable, renewable fuels, is crucial to meet international climate targets set in the 2015 Paris agreement.
  • But, will green air travel also get cheaper? What are the advantages of Biofuels over fossil fuels? Does Biofuel have the power to create a balance between the environment and economic development? These are some of the issues that need discussion.

Analysis by the Experts:

  • The move to successfully operate India’s first Biofuel flight comes at a time when spiralling aviation fuel has strained finances of domestic airlines. The objective is to make air travel economical and also bring respite to airlines that are reeling under high fuel prices.
  • By successfully operating a test flight powered by Biojet fuel, India has joined a select group of countries, including the US, Canada and Australia that have flown Biofuel operated aircraft. A 72-seater Turboprop aircraft, powered by biofuel, took off from Dehradun and successfully landed in Delhi. This jet had partially used biofuel during its flight. The flight was powered with a blend of 75% Air Turbine Fuel and 25% Biojet fuel. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat flagged off the Turboprop aircraft from Dehradun’s Jolly Grant Airport. Around 20 people, including officials from aviation regulator DGCA, and SpiceJet were in the test flight. When the flight landed at the Delhi Airport 25 minutes later, Union Ministers Nitin Gadkari, Suresh Prabhu, Dharmendra Pradhan, Dr. Harsh Vardhan and Jayant Sinha were present to acknowledge the unique achievement.

 A Note on the Biofuel used:

  • The Biofuel used on this trial flight was a mix of oil extracted from the seeds of the Jatropha plant and aviation turbine fuel. Nearly 500 farmer families in Chattisgarh were involved in the production of the partially-refined biofuel developed later by Dehradun based Indian Institute of Petroleum.
  • Compared to air turbine fuel, experts say that Biojet fuel reduces carbon emissions and enhances fuel efficiency. SpiceJet chairman and managing director Ajay Singh says Biojet fuel has the potential to reduce our dependence on traditional aviation fuel by up to 50% on every flight and also bring down fares.
  • Biojet fuel has been recognized by American Standard Testing Methods and meets specification standards of Pratt & Whitney and Bombardier for commercial applications.
  • According to the global aviation body, IATA, the aviation industry contributes to 2% of the total global GHG emissions. It has also set out a target for 1 Billion passengers to fly on aircraft using a mix of clean energy and fossil fuels by the year 2025.
  • A Biofuel is energy obtained through a process of biological carbon-fixation. There is an urgent need of a sustainable source of energy and Biofuels just might be the long-term solution as against standard fuels. Biofuels are combustible fuels created from Biomass, which also means that these are fuels created from recent plant matter as opposed to ancient plant matter in hydrocarbons.
  • Biomass refers to the organic material that is used for production of energy, also referred to as bioenergy. Biomass is primarily found in the form of living or recently living plant and biological waste from industrial and home use. The physical composition of biomass is inconsistent, but it generally includes carbon, water, and organic matter. The fuels that we use such as Diesel, Petrol, etc. are known as mineral oils.
  • This is because they are extracted from crude oil which is to be mined from digging the earth, and then the same is fractionated to produce the petroleum that we consume. Interestingly, the first motorcar that was run on fuel was run on biofuel. The term biofuel is mostly used in the context of liquid fuels like ethanol and biodiesel. Biofuels can also include solid fuels like wood pellets.

Types of Biofuel:

Biofuels are of 3 types: a) Ethanol b) Biodiesel c) Biojet fuel

  • Ethanol is used in engines that burn gasoline like most cars. Biodiesel is used in engines that burn diesel fuel like large trucks and tractors. Biojet fuel is used in planes.
  • Theoretically, biofuel can be produced through any carbon source, with plants being the most commonly used material. But, ethanol is produced in a different way from Biodiesel.
  • What they have in common is the need to grow the plant that will eventually be used to make the fuel. For ethanol, corn or sugarcane is first harvested and then bacteria are allowed to digest it.
  • This is done under special conditions where oxygen levels are low. This process is called fermentation that produces ethanol. For Biodiesel, the process requires chemical reactions- the most common is called trans-esterification, which is the process of breaking down fats catalysed by methanol.
  • Biofuel can be made from various sources like feedstock. Ethanol can be made from
    a) Corn b) Sugarcane c) Sugar beet d) Wheat e) Grass f) Inedible parts of most plants
  • Biodiesel can be made from a cactus-like plant called Jatropha, flowering plants like Camelina, Soyabeans, Rapeseed, Canola Oil, Palm Oil, Peanut Oil, Vegetable Oil, Animal Fat, and Algae Oil (Algae Oil is made by Algae that lives in water).
  • Today, Biomass is used to produce Biofuels that are used together with biofuels or even replace them.
  • About 25 billion gallons of ethanol are made each year as fuel, and each year, about 1 billion gallons of biodiesel are produced.
  • Biofuel is a source of renewable energy, unlike fossil fuels like petrol, coal and natural gas. Further, it is cost-effective and also environmentally friendly. This makes it well suited in an age where the cost of petroleum products are rising and there is a growing concern of fossil fuels in global warming. Biofuels are subdivided into generations.
  • Biofuel is grouped by categories and further classified into different types.

What are these categories and types?

  • 1st Generation Biofuels:
    • These are the conventional biofuels that are produced directly from food crops.
    • They are derived from starch, sugar, animal, fats, and vegetable oil.
    • Corn, wheat and sugarcane are the most common first generation biofuel feedstock.
  • 2nd Generation Biofuels:
    • The 2nd Generation Biofuels are more advanced Biofuels.
    • They are made from various types of non-food biomass, which are plant materials and animal waste.
  • 3rd Generation Biofuels:
    • They entered the mainstream recently, and they refer to biofuel that is derived from Algae.
  • 4th Generation Biofuels:
    • The 4th Generation biofuels don’t require the destruction of biomass. This includes electrofuels and photobiological solar fuels.
    • Some of these fuels are carbon-neutral.

Different types of fuels can be produced using 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation biofuels production procedures.

Biodiesel:

  • Biodiesel is a renewable resource made from vegetable oil, recycled cooking oil, soyabean, palm oil, peanut oil, canola oil, animal fat and fatty acids.

Bio-ethanol:

  • Bio-ethanol is made from fermentation of plant starch.
    This is also a byproduct of the chemical reaction with ethylene and other types of petroleum products.
  • One of the latest techniques to produce ethanol is algenol which is done with the help of algae. Bio-ethanol is a clean gas with no toxins. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions as well (GHG’s).

Biogas:

  • Biogas is a renewable source of energy that is produced by the anaerobic digestion of biomass.
  • It is obtained when organic matter is broken down in the absence of oxygen.
  • The raw materials used are manure, food waste, municipal waste, agricultural waste and sewage used as raw materials.
  • A major portion of biogass is methane and CO2 It also has small proportions of hydrogen sulphide, hydrogen carbon-monoxide.
  • It is used for heating, electricity and for automobiles.

Butanol:

  • Butanol is similar to ethanol. It is a type of alcohol, that can be produced from petro-chemical process or by the fermentation of sugar from agricultural crops.
  • The energy content in Butanol is the highest among the other gasoline alternatives.
  • The toxic emissions are zero which in turn minimizes air pollution.
  • It can be added to diesel to reduce emissions.
  • It serves as a solvent in textile industries, and is used as a base in perfumes.

Bio-hydrogen:

  • Bio-hydrogen is similar to biogas. Bio- hydrogen is produced with the help of bacteria, algae, and archaea biologically. Some of the common methods to produce it are photo-fermentation, dark fermentation, direct photolysis, and indirect photolysis.

This year, the Government approved the National Policy on Biofuels to not only help farmers dispose off surplus stock in an economic manner but also reduce India’s oil import dependence. Rajasthan became the first state to implement it.

  • With the first Indian airplane being flown with biofuel, there has been little doubt that biofuel can be used to run vehicles as well.
  • But, the truth is that biofuel can replace all human energy needs from home-heating to vehicle fuel to electricity generation. The basic concept of biofuel is that if we use as much product as is grown, then our net impact on the environment is negligible, if not zero.

Uses of Biofuel and their impact on the environment:

  • Biofuels are as old as cars. At the beginning of the 20th Century, when Henry Ford built his first automobile, he also had plans to fuel it with ethanol. Considering that this happened over a century ago, and that ethanol is still not a popular fuel, the plan clearly did not take off. The discovery of huge petroleum deposits kept petrol cheap for decades and by then biofuels were largely forgotten. But a recent rise in the price of oil and the rise and the concern about Global warming has reignited the interest in Biofuels. Estimates suggest that we have nearly hit peak-oil and that it is only a matter of time when we will run out of it. So, the need to find an alternative is clear. It is strategically very important for India that she develops her indigenous capabilities in fuels to cater to different needs. Thus, when we move towards biofuels, it is natural that we would be developing our farming industries, our rural areas, our energy security, etc. Petroleum products are in any case subject to a lot of ups and downs in the international market, thus if we produce biofuels internally in India, then this would be a very good addition.
  • Many of the alternatives like wind and solar energy are non-practical as transporting them is very difficult. Thus, the solution seems to be algal-based biofuels. Algae has lipid and lipids can be converted into a number of fuels, including diesel, ethanol, butanol and methanol.
  • With this renewed interest, it is important to examine the uses of biofuels, the first being transportation. Globally, transportation accounts for 25% of all energy needs and nearly 62% of all oil consumed. Most of this energy is burnt to operate vehicles, while the rest goes towards maintenance, manufacturing, infrastructure, and raw material harvesting.
  • Further, more than 70% of energy consumption in transportation is used in private cars. Thus, it is being used in the least efficient means. The other use, is in the area of power generation. Electricity generation is the single largest user of fuel in the world. In 2008, the world produced over 20,261 TWh of electricity and about 41% of that came from coal, 21% came from natural gas, and the rest 16% from hydropower, 13% from nuclear, and 5% from oil. Of the fuel burnt, only 39% went into producing energy and the rest was lost as heat.
  • The third major use of biofuel is generating heat. The majority of biofuel used in heating is used as solid. The renewed interest has led to a surge of innovation in the industry with research focussing on improved efficiency, reduced emissions, and enhanced convenience.
  • Recently, a fuel cell was developed with cooking oil and sugar to generate electricity. This could soon become a common method to do that. Consumers may be able to use fuel cells in lieu of batteries to charge anything from computers to mobiles. Biofuels can help to clean up oil spells and grease as well. It has been tested as a potential cleaning agent in areas where oil has contaminated waters. Biofuel can also be used for cooking; the other uses are as a motor lubricant, and to remove paint and adhesives.
  • The biggest advantage of biofuels is that it is bio-degradable. However, developing biofuels require huge investments of water and fertilizer. In other words, more energy is put into the system than taken out, thus it leads to a net loss. Until the input of energy is lower than what the system produces, the system cannot be viable.

Read more Gist of Rajya Sabha TV to help you ace current affairs in the IAS exam.

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