OPINION: World Biofuel Day — Can biofuel help sustainably meet the growing energy needs of India?

OPINION: World Biofuel Day — Can biofuel help sustainably meet the growing energy needs of India?
Representative image (BCCL)
This week, the Government of India passed a bill in parliament seeking to mandate the use of non-fossil energy sources, including biomass, ethanol, and green hydrogen. This is the need of the hour to address the growing global climate crisis fuelled by fossil fuels. August 10 also marks World Biofuel Day in memory of Sir Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine. He is said to have operated the first mechanical engine with peanut oil.
Broadly biofuels or non-fossil fuels are a low-cost, renewable alternative to fossil fuels. Biofuel is a wide term that encompasses biomass-derived solid, liquid, and gas fuels (e.g., bio-coal, methanol, ethanol, biodiesel, bio-oil, hydrogen, and methane). Since biomass can be replenished easily, biofuels are considered renewable. While they can be used as a standalone fuel source, they can easily blend with petroleum fuels and thereafter be used in a variety of blending ratios without any change in existing infrastructure.
These advantages of biofuels contribute to their fast acceptance! But, there’s a challenge; their production primarily relies on food crops, and unscientific approaches to producing excessive biofuels can drive deforestation, as documented in Brazil. The phrase "conventional biofuels" refers to these biofuels.
To tackle these threats, there’s a heightened focus on ‘Advanced Biofuels’, i.e., biofuels derived from lignocellulosic (refers to plant dry matter) biomass. These are being explored as a possible replacement for conventional biofuels. Lignocellulosic biomass is not used as food and is abundant, thereby reducing the risk posed by conventional biofuels to food security and the environment. The use of advanced biofuels in transportation is predicted to reduce carbon emissions as it reinforces the natural carbon cycle, which implies that the carbon emitted during burning is retrieved during photosynthesis.
Biofuels answer the twin problems in India, where, as per the Government of India, over 350 million tonnes of agricultural waste is generated every year. This waste is generally burnt and can lead to an immense air pollution load. With the current technologies, this can be utilised to reduce the quantity of oil imported by converting the waste to biofuels. As per government estimates, this waste can generate up to 18 GW of power in addition to generating green fertilisers. But the possibility that conventional biofuels could threaten food security has caused many governments to set strict rules about how biofuels can be made.
Drop-in biofuels are liquid hydrocarbons generated from biomass that fulfil the standards for current petroleum distillate fuel, for example, ASTM D4814, and are ready to "drop in" to the existing fuel supply and consumption infrastructure. Bio-butanol, liquefied biomass, sugar hydrocarbons, and syngas complexes are all examples of drop-in biofuel options.
Biofuels also carry a few misconceptions, such as cellulosic biofuels will always be far from getting commercialized; biofuels can only exist with significant subsidies; the world's ability to produce food would be drastically reduced to meet biofuel regulations, resulting in both a spike in global prices and food riots; instead of reducing carbon emissions, biofuels increase them; biofuels are energy negative, i.e., they consume more energy in getting produced than what they give. None of these is true in the real sense if we adhere to scientifically proven methods of efficient biofuel production.
India can generate its energy, cooking and vehicle fuel, and organic fertilizer from locally available biomass wastes using anaerobic digestion in biogas or CBG plants. All kinds of biomass, except wood, can theoretically produce biogas, although biogas production's efficiency depends on the biomass's digestibility. This will enable scientific management of the waste available and help India meet the global target of GHG emission reduction. When sent to landfills, the organic fraction of municipal solid waste (MSW) would emit methane, which has close to 21 times the global warming potential compared to carbon dioxide.
Using biogas plants to deal with organic waste would also keep it from getting into groundwater aquifers and surface water bodies. It's important to know that large-scale use of dig estate from CBG plants can stop soil from getting worse. Biomass generated from agriculture is abundant in various bioactive and nutraceutical substances, including dietary fibre, carotenoids, and polyphenols, among others. This biomass is rich in roughage, and with the addition of requisite nutrients, it is a prospective answer to becoming rich animal fodder. Solid substrate fermentation, ensiling, and high solid or slurry procedures are among the technologies that can enrich agriculture biomass from a fodder perspective.
Bio hydrogen is the cleanest energy source as it procures only water vapour and can effectively decarbonise transport, power production, and industrial operations. Compressed Biogas is also carbon neutral and a cleaner fuel as it is sustainable, renewable, and easily transportable through gas pipelines or cylinder cascades. Efforts of the government in India to promote biogas and other biofuels will help meet the stated sustainability goals and the country's energy security.

A plus point with compressed biogas is that there are no environmental side effects associated with the biogas plants. The effluent/plant discharge is also recognised as fermented organic manure and can help improve soil health by raising organic matter content. However, if a biogas plant is not designed properly and methane gets leaked into the atmosphere, it can potentially harm the environment from a greenhouse perspective. Proper engineering followed by PESO's (Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization) norms can derisk it. Space constraints may make it unprofitable in densely populated areas, but modern designs allow for such issues to be addressed.
India today generates over 550 million tonnes of biowaste, which can be converted to biogas or biofuels and used to meet part of its energy requirements. Given the unpredictability of oil imports and high costs, the Indian government aims to achieve the target of 20% blending of biofuels with fossil fuels over the next five years. Government regulations and policy enforcement are crucial to reducing fuel imports and meeting carbon emission targets.
Gaurav Kedia is the Chairman of the Indian Biogas Association
This column is part of a year-long (2022-23) campaign on the theme “ Only One Earth: Sustaining People, Planet and Prosperity” by Business Insider India’s Sustainability Insider.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the author/interviewee do not necessarily reflect the views of Business Insider India. The article has been partly edited for length and clarity