The G8 or the eight richest countries in the world met this month to discuss their future economic strategies. And do you know what was the top most issue on their agenda? Looming energy crisis. Yes, the world leaders are at their wits’ end about the way erratic gas supply is affecting global economy. But the panic is rising not only because of that.
A lot more is at stake here. Fossil fuels like oil, coal and petroleum spew out carbon di oxide and other green house gases into the atmosphere. And these gases are slowly destroying Nature’s delicately balanced climate system. No wonder everyone is now desperately looking out for alternatives.
What are the options available to us? While major research projects are on in full swing in different parts of the world, biofuels are fast grabbing the attention of the world community.
Why are they better?
Biofuels are produced from plants, crops and animal feedstock. They are less toxic—releasing none of the poisonous gases emitted by fossil fuels. So they ensure better air quality. Also, biofuels drastically cut down wastes, as the left over plant masses can be recycled as fodder or as fertilizers.
They are made of renewable, locally available resources. So they make nations less dependant on others for supply of fuels. Some of these oil-yielding plants grow on poor soils and need very little water or manure to survive. So they can be cultivated on wastelands that cannot be used for agriculture. Also, the production process—growing the crops and processing them— creates fresh employment in the villages and rural areas.
But… beware of the pitfalls
Sound like wonder oils, don’t they? But if we are to go the biofuel way in India, we need to tread carefully. Why?
Because land is at a premium in India. Every patch of soil is used here—either for crops, or to grow fodder. Even the driest, most infertile tracts provide livelihood for communities, who literally live off these lands. So on whose land will these oil-yielding varieties be grown? Because biofuels are already being seen as a hugely profitable venture by the industries. And they are out to grab lands in states with large stretches of ‘wastelands’, like Chattisgarh. This may spell doom for our farmers and shepherds who earn their roti from these seemingly useless tracts.
The challenge will be to ensure that industries— lured by the oil-producing plants —don’t jump into the bandwagon and bypass the local communties! Now, let me tell you about a couple of these varieties that are now being tried out in our own country.
Jatropha-liquid gold: The seeds of a plant called jatropha (Jatropha curcas to scientists; ratanjyot in Hindi) and pongamia (Pongamia pinnata; karanj in Hindi) yield oil that, after processing, makes biodiesel. The system of production is simple. Oil is extracted and put through a process called transesterification (to convert it to fatty acid esters, the chemical description of biodiesel, by incubation with alcohol and alkali); this makes it a suitable blend for petroleumderived diesel. The jatropha blend reduces greenhouse gas emission by half. Scientists claim that as the conversion process improves with time, emission level will be zero!
Jatropha is also ideally suited to India. Why? Because it is a hardy plant that can to grow in abundance in dry, arid zones. In other words, the lands that cannot be used for growing crops can be reclaimed and a solid farmer production base can be built up
Ethanol-tasty car punch: It is made by fermenting molusses or gurh, a product of sugarcane. Ethanol, CH3CH2OH, is an alcohol, a group of chemical compounds whose molecules contain a hydroxyl group, OH, bonded to a carbon atom. Its low freezing point has made it useful as the fluid in thermometers, and for other low-temperature purposes, such as for antifreeze in automobile radiators. Ethanol has been made since ancient times by the fermentation of sugars.
Zymase, an enzyme from yeast, changes the simple sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Starches from potatoes, corn, wheat, and other plants can also be used in the production of ethanol by fermentation. However, the starches must first be broken down into simple sugars.
Ethanol is easily blended up to at least 10 per cent with modern conventional gasoline vehicles, and to much higher levels in vehicles that have been modified to accommodate it. The Indian government launched a programme to promote ethanol-blended petrol in 2003. Besides providing a source of less-polluting fuel, this is designed to help sugar-cane farmers to get better returns from the fields.
Chicken broth, sorry, fuel...
Rear chickens and get your own biodiesel! No it is not a barter deal or the latest offer in the market...chickens will now be used for something beyond sumptuous dishes- to produce biofuels! Researchers at the University of Arkansas, the US, has developed a method to convert chicken fat to a biodiesel, that is efficient enough to power automobiles and trucks. Chicken-fat fuels are less expensive, better for the environment and the machines than most of the other sources like Soybean oil, say the scientists. A tasty idea?