On August 27, 2018 a SpiceJet Bombardier Q-400 completed a 43-minute flight from Dehradun to New Delhi, seemingly no different from many others of its kind. But, unlike them, this one, in a paradigm shift, set the seal on the country’s capacity for powering flights with a mix of jatropha oil and aviation turbine fuel (ATF), under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative. It is symbolic of a breakthrough in alternate energy use.
The flight also assumes critical importance in the light of escalating oil prices with grave outcomes for the economy, particularly in the transport and aviation sectors. Sooner or later, crude will run out of supply because of rampant consumption and dwindling reserves. That flight is also linked to greater urgency in the race for renewable energy sources.
Inspired by the world’s first Virgin Atlantic flight, propelled by bio-jet fuel between London and Amsterdam, more than 10 years ago, the Dehradun-based Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP) mastered the knowhow of converting oil from jatropha seeds into bio-jet aviation fuel through a process of trial and error lasting eight years. The American Standard Testing Method (ASTM) has also certified the product for commercial use.
Jatropha, a native of Mexico and Central America, can be grown in poor soil conditions, withstand drought - like conditions and is resistant to pests and diseases. The seed husks, after oil extraction, are being reprocessed into low cost organic manure and being sold in Chattisgarh state in central India.
Rural Bengal relies on the plant for treating ‘dhobi’ (washerman’s) itch, a common fungal skin infection, according to Wikipedia. Used as a fence around farmlands, jatropha can keep cattle at bay. Besides, the bio-fuel can also slash pollution levels and leave a negligible carbon footprint, according to a NASA study.
Initially, the absence of sustainable supplies hampered the work of the IIP scientists working on this technology since 2009. But Chattisgarh Bio-fuel Development Authority (CBDA), fortunately, joined hands with them at about the same time. It ensured a steady flow of jatropha crude, required for experimentation and value addition, as an initial step towards commercializing the output of bio-jet fuel.
One of the two of the Bombardier’s engines carried 25 percent bio-fuel mixed with 75 percent of ATF, while the other carried only ATF. Some 350 kg of the processed bio-oil came from the IIP, an organ of the Central Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
These oil seeds, sourced from 500 jatropha cultivators in the districts of Bilaspur, Chattisgarh and processed into crude bio-fuel by the CBDA at its pilot plant in Raipur, with a three tonne daily capacity, underwent further conversion into bio-jet fuel at the IIP, at a cost of 70 rupees per kg, according to Sumit Sarkar, project officer at the CBDA.
Seventy percent of the cost or 49 rupees is accounted for by the feed, reports quoting Anjan Ray, director, IIP, said. Ray holds a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania, US. Anil Sinha, who anchored the research at the IIP, pointed out that bulk production of bio-jet fuel will bring down the cost substantially.
Significantly, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has fixed an ambitious target for airlines; flying a billion passengers with the help of a bio and fossil fuel mix by 2025. This sector alone accounts for two percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions, worldwide. Currently, global norms permit a blend rate of up to 50 per cent bio-fuel with ATF
The Modi government has also proposed cutting down petroleum imports by 10 per cent by 2022 and replacing it with bio-fuel-ATF mixture. The requirement for the current year alone is projected at 219.15 million tonnes, according to Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell (PPAC) of the oil ministry.
The demand is bound to go up by 2022. Even a 10 per cent cut in crude imports then would leave a shortfall of millions of tonnes. Meeting the difference with bio-fuel looks seemingly impracticable because of a number of constraints on the ground. However, as Sarkar avers, “a mix of feedstock other than jatropha, other non-edible oil seeds, used cooking oil, etc, can help achieve the target.”
Besides, the country has enough degraded lands and arid zones to substantially expand jatropha cultivation and support the initiative of reducing crude imports, for which political will is required. The hardy plant has been officially identified as one of the most promising alternatives to fossil fuels because it is clean, green and more energy efficient.
But the flip side is that jatropha has low productivity per acre. Farmers are reluctant to take up cultivation, given the long four-to-five-year wait before the plant begins to produce results.
However, the cycle of productivity lasts 30 years, which yields an income between INR 10,000 and INR 15,000 per acre. Currently, more than 100,000 hectares or 247,106 acres are under jatropha cultivation in Chattisgarh.
Between 2005 and 2009, some 277.4 million jatropha saplings were sown all over the state by the agriculture, forest, horticulture and other departments under the plantation drive launched by the CBDA. But only half the numbers survived, with an annual yield of 30,000 tonnes of seed.
“Survival is poor due to lack of maintenance of plantation,” admits Sarkar, “but we have undertaken massive awareness program to help rural beneficiaries regain confidence in jatropha, trying to build a robust rural network so that they can the fetch right price for farmers.”
A policy is likely to be framed on bio jet fuel and placed before the cabinet soon, Surface Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari said.
Chattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh had launched a campaign to promote jatropha and help establish Chattisgarh as the country’s first bio-fuel hub. Accordingly CBDA, a statutory body was set up in 2005 to ensure a sustainable supply of feedstock for bio fuel production. Efforts are on to increase the acreage through survey and soil testing. A positive outcome has been the expansion of green cover in Chattisgarh.
Jatropha bio-fuel has been successfully running cars too. In fact, the official vehicle of Raman Singh has been using this oil since 2006. Three Mercedes cars using jatropha diesel have already completed 30,000 km under a project sponsored by Daimler Chrysler and by the German Association for Investment and Development, according to reports.
Karanj is another plant that is said to yield more oil than a comparable quantity of jatropha. Extensive research conducted by Sarkar, on behalf of the CBDA, has already identified 144 species, out of the more than 6,632 karanj plants surveyed in Chattisgarh, with a view to harnessing their potential as a bio-fuel.
(The author is a science and strategic affairs columnist. He can be contacted at email@example.com)