There is a long way to go before biofuel becomes a reality, but this year, a beginning was made. In August, SpiceJet operated a test flight (a Bombardier Q400 flight) from Dehradun to Delhi, which partially used biojet-fuel. The flight, which carried 28 people, used 75% of the regular ATF (aviation turbine fuel) and 25% of biojet fuel made from the jatropha plant.
Biofuel is good news for human kind, as it helps the environment and also the aviation industry, which is battling exorbitant aviation fuel prices. It is made from any plant or animal material and thus becomes an alternate energy source. While CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum (CSIR-IIP) is using jatropha seed oil for its biofuel, other tree-borne oils — Nahor Oil from the North-east, Sapium Oil from the Himalayan region; waste cooking oil, mustard family non-edible rotation crops are also promising feed stocks.
In 2016, members of the Council of ICAO adopted the global scheme CORSIA, to cut down aviation emissions. According to Sinha, this widens the scope of biojet-fuel. “Right now, the scheme is voluntary till 2026, after which it will become compulsory for airlines and aircraft operators,” adds Sinha, who is positive about the current government supporting the CSIR-IIP programme.
CSIR-IIP now wants to make this technology commercial and to use biofuel in actual flights, for which it is working towards scaling up and setting up a demonstration scale plant. “But the feedstock supply (non-edible vegetable oil and waste cooking oils) and its cost, put forth major economic challenges for this fuel,” says Sinha.
Shell, a major oil and gas multinational, is also a distributor of biofuel. A recent press release issued by them states: The number of cars on the road is expected to rise to around 2 billion by 2050, with the amount of freight carried by trucks doubling. Shell believes low-carbon biofuels, together with gains in energy efficiency, are among the quickest and most practical ways to reduce CO2 emissions from road transport in the next 20 years. According to Shell, the CO2 performance of current biofuels depends on how they are produced. Ethanol made from Brazilian sugar cane, for example, produces around 70% lower CO2 emissions from production to use, than petrol. The company feels that hydrogen is likely to play a role in transport in decades to come, but continues to face challenges in achieving commercial scale. “We are involved in research and have invested in a number of filling stations around the world.” NS Balamukundan manufactures 500 mt of bio-diesel in Chennai and 6000 mt of bio-diesel in Vizag, per month. He says his bio-diesel generates a 35% lesser carbon footprint, and depending on the feedstock, the percentage can go even higher. “But it is not easy to do so. The foremost challenge is technology. Most plants in India and globally do not have the technology to process waste vegetable oils. Those based on edible oils are not cost competitive, and hence lead to poor capacity utilisation.”
Chairman, Starair; former Managing Director, Vayudoot; civil aviation industry watcher
Internationally carbon emissions in the environment from aeroplanes, amount to 2%, which is all the more harmful at high altitudes. Biofuel will hopefully help eliminate this. However, there are still challenges. Internationally, the industry is working towards finding solutions.
One of the problems with biofuel is this: the aircraft’s engines have to provide inflow of fuel (fossil fuel), at a specific calorific value. To achieve that calorific value, aviation turbine fuel has a certain volume which converts into energy and provides thrust to the aircraft. Now, experiments are going on to ascertain if the same amount of biofuel can generate the same calorific value, or if a higher inflow of biofuel is needed.
The long-term shelf value of biofuel is still not proven. Beyond a point it tends to disintegrate and then it becomes a kind of jelly.
The cost of producing biofuel is higher than that of standard fuel. The experiments done so far have been to mix it in a limited way. So, sustainability and cost become major issues.
We need to solve the storage problem of the fuel, which is at the second stage of experimentation now.
More than anything, it needs to be accepted globally, which may take another 15-20 years.
The India story…
First, we have to scale up production, and then see how other modes of transportation respond to it; then we can use it for aircraft. The countries which are very aggressive in the use of biofuel — Australia and Canada — are both agriculture-based economies. Here’s the picture in our country.
India is deficient in the production of fossil fuel, and has an advantage with biofuel because of its huge agricultural base. However, we still need a commercial set-up for it.
While the Government of India has a biofuel policy for the aviation sector, they haven’t come out with a biofuel policy for the rest. Unless we start using biofuel in other modes of transportation, doing it just for the aviation sector will be difficult. That way, the scale of production will go up, you will gain experience, and you can see how it behaves.
National policy on biofuels
This year, the Cabinet approved a national policy on biofuels, which was initially announced in 2009. The policy stressed on the development and utilisation of indigenous non-food feedstocks, research, processing and production of biofuels and a blending mandate of 20% ethanol and bio-diesel by 2017.