Creating Eco-friendly Fuel From Farm Waste

What comes as an ameliorant is bio-fuels which not only mitigate the environmental damage caused by conventional fuels but also helps prevent pollution caused by the large scale burning of farm waste. Let's examine the social perspective of bio-fuels in today's context.
Creating Eco-friendly Fuel From Farm Waste
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Founder & Executive Chairman, Praj Industries
8 min read
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Just as food, clothing, and shelter are the fundamental needs of man, health and education are the vital pillars that empower people to better their lives and to progress. However, when the pace of the so-called progress starts destroying the planet’s health, Nature uses her own ways to curb it. The recent pandemic set off by Coronavirus is proof.

Excessive consumption of mineral fuels is also one such destructive interference in Nature’s ways. What comes as an ameliorant is bio-fuels which not only mitigate the environmental damage caused by conventional fuels but also helps prevent pollution caused by the large scale burning of farm waste. Let’s examine the social perspective of bio-fuels in today’s context.

The world spends $ 2900 billion, which is 3.3% of the total GDP, to correct the adverse impact of pollution caused by the use of mineral oil. India spends a higher proportion, 5.4 % of its GDP which amounts to about 10.7 lakh crores towards this. It is estimated that by the year 2030 agricultural waste in India would be 1.5 times that in 2010 and 1.25 times that in 2020. According to available statistics, about 76% of farm waste is presently used as fodder for cattle and for the generation of electricity for household consumption. The remaining 24% is pure wastage. Out of this, 17% is burnt down on the farmland itself causing massive air pollution. In short, the waste that can work as a precious raw material in the manufacture of bio-fuel in fact becomes the culprit because we do not have the required planning and wherewithal to use it constructively. 

In the previous article in the series on bio-mobility, we discussed the economic aspect of the subject. We will now try to ponder the social angle in the light of some hard facts and numbers. It is imperative that we as a society introspect and analyze the direct and indirect consequences of the uncontrolled pace of development we are witnessing today. We cannot stop at that. On identifying the damage done, we owe it to ourselves and to our future generations to rectify the mistakes. Unless we do that, the human race had better be ready to face upheavals like the present Coronavirus pandemic, if not worse. Unbridled use of mineral oil will have repercussions. It’s time we took note and action.

It’s been over two centuries that mineral oil has lent impetus to industrial development. The first industrial revolution that began sometime in the latter half of the 18th century, gave the economy a powerful kickstart.  Mechanization enabled the manufacture of products at a pace and scale that the manual could have never accomplished. By the end of the 19th century, in the wake of the second wave of the industrial revolution, the industry practically ran on mineral oil, such that it adorned the moniker ‘Black Gold’. When World War II ended sometime around the middle of the 20th century, the world economy had started clearly gravitating towards a capitalist model which further accelerated the race to acquire and consume mineral oil that was so essential for a grand and fast development. Industrialization was already bringing with it urbanization, electrification, and consumerism all of which relied heavily on energy. Energy had become the most coveted commodity. The third surge of industrialization in the 1980s strengthened the connection between society and the economy, thus accentuating the appetite for energy. But now the world had also begun to experience the first signs of discomfort that came with its inordinate use.  The first world conference on Energy was held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. By the last decade of the twentieth century, nations had started looking for pathways to sustainable development. The Paris Treaty in 2015 was a milestone in this journey. However, the challenge is still so colossal that in spite of continuous efforts, the last three decades have seen a 60% rise in the use of mineral oil over the earlier two decades.

As the dependency on fossil fuels shot up, the adverse effects became more palpable too. Combustion of these fuels have not only increased carbon dioxide levels in the air, but also ozone, sulphate, formaldehyde, and benzene. Although ozone is useful as a protective layer in the atmosphere, its presence close to or on the surface of the earth can be harmful. The exhaust from fossil fuels contains large amounts of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide molecules. Indirect sunlight, these react to form ozone which is harmful to agriculture as it hampers the process of photosynthesis. In humans, ozone can cause lung and heart disease. The pollutants emitted by fossil fuels can cause irritation in the eyes and throat, digestive problems, and also serious ailments like asthma, pneumonia, cancer, and brain disease.

On the one hand, fossil fuels are causing serious damage to life while on the other, agricultural waste which can be used to produce bio-fuel is being burnt, causing further pollution. A survey indicates that a ton of agricultural waste when burnt, destroys 5 kg nitrogen, 2.3 kg phosphorous, 25 kg potassium, and more than 1 kg of sulphur. Each of these contributes to increasing the texture and fertility of the soil.    

Prof. Vitul Gupta, an academician from Bhatinda, Punjab, conducted a study in 2016 and found that the farmers and their families themselves became victims of ailments caused by the burning of agricultural waste. About 84.5% suffered from some malady or the other. While 76.8% of people experienced eye irritation, 44.8% had nasal problems and 45.5% had throat problems. Cough aggravated in 41.6% cases, and 18% had throat irritation. According to a survey conducted by the Institute of Social and Economic Change, Bangalore, residents of rural Punjab spend a total of Rs. 7.6 crore every year on the treatment of health issues caused by the tradition of burning agricultural waste.

The amount of agricultural waste in 2030 is projected at 1.5 times that in 2010and 1.25 times that in 2020. In 2010, it was 55.6 crore tons. As per the study on the Future of Bio-fuels in India published by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) in December 2019, 70.8 crore tons of agricultural waste shall be generated during the year 2020 and 86.8 crore tons in 2030. The study further stated that by 2030, 7.1 crores ton agricultural waste can be made available for the production of biofuels. This does not include the waste used in maintaining carbon levels in the soil and for any other purposes. A similar study states that by 2030 India would be able to use 25 lakh tons of forest waste for the manufacture of bio-fuel. Besides this, used cooking oil, solid waste from municipal corporation areas, and animal dung are other raw materials worth exploring for the production of bio-fuel. The ICCT indicates that barring animal dung, other waste material could produce 59.2 billion litres of bio-fuel.

It makes enormous sense therefore to route agricultural and other vegetative waste towards the production of bio-fuel instead of burning and destroying it and causing air pollution. The farmers in Punjab and Haryana now have a gainful opportunity to deal with agricultural waste, as four bio-CNG and ethanol plants are being set up in the region. About 5 lakh tons of agricultural waste can easily be consumed and 11 crore tons of ethanol produced in these plants. The farmers supplying raw material will get a subsidy of Rs. 46 for every kilogram of bio-CNG produced. On the other hand, a subsidy of Rs. 7 crore will be offered to attract investors in the project. Pune based Praj Industries, which has been at the forefront in offering the technology for the manufacture of 2G ethanol to Indian companies, is also helping with these projects. 

Besides biofuels, the use of solar energy, wind energy, and electricity will have a positive impact on the economy and the health of society. Barring the West Asian and Gulf countries, and some like Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Canada, and the U.S, that enjoy abundant oil reserves, most other countries are not self-reliant in energy requirement. It is pragmatic therefore for these countries to develop alternative energy sources that are renewable, clean, and can produce energy indigenously. As is predictable and stated by Forbes magazine, concerted efforts towards this will soon reflect on the demand and price for mineral oil in oil-rich nations including the U.S. Investment in the renewable energy sector is expected to rise significantly and the increasing popularity of clean energy will lead to a fall in demand for mineral oil. The article further elaborates that even though the initial capital investment will be massive, once that is recovered over a period of time, further recurring costs will be negligible. While mineral oil prices will not be able to compete with their prices in the natural course, a reduction in demand is bound to push the prices down. The journey is long and it will take years for the above scenario to emerge from the present. Nevertheless, the curtain-raiser is already visible in states like North Carolina and Georgia in the U.S, the article states.

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