July 31, 2014 12:00 am JST

Tejraj M. Aminabhavi: Biofuels promise a cleaner future

Today, more than ever, global warming is a hot topic. The rapid depletion of fossil fuel reserves, skyrocketing oil prices and increasing greenhouse gas emissions have prompted scientists to search for eco-friendly alternatives, such as biofuels.

     Two of the most common biofuels -- bioethanol and biodiesel -- are derived from plants containing high amounts of natural oil and fat. Bioethanol, a natural form of ethanol, is produced by fermenting sugar cane. When mixed with gasoline, it produces hybrid biofuel for use in vehicles. Ethanol is an alcohol -- the same as found in beer and wine -- but ethanol used as a fuel is modified to make it undrinkable. Bioethanol production from the fermentation of biomass -- through a process similar to brewing beer -- is seen as an attractive method for producing alternative fuel. Brazil, Thailand, South Africa and Australia are the biggest bioethenol producers.

     The main feedstocks for producing biodiesel are canola in Europe, soybeans in Argentina, Brazil and the U.S., palms in Indonesia and Malaysia, and Jatropha in India, Philippines and Thailand.

     Microalgae are another important source for producing liquid fuels. These microorganisms use the sun's energy to combine carbon dioxide with water to create biomass more efficiently and rapidly than terrestrial plants. Oil-rich microalgae strains are capable of producing feedstock for biodiesel -- "green" diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel -- while mitigating the effects of carbon dioxide released from power plants.

Boundless benefits

Ethanol can be mixed with gasoline to increase its octane value and cut down on carbon monoxide and other smog-causing emissions. Biodiesel is made by combining alcohol -- usually methanol -- with vegetable oil, animal fat or recycled cooking grease. Biodiesel can be used as an additive, typically 20%, to reduce vehicle emissions. In addition to reducing emissions, biodiesel also allows for greater energy independence and has a positive impact on agriculture. For instance, 1kg of biodiesel results in a 3kg reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared with conventional diesel.

     Brazil is one of the world's top producers of biofuels and a pioneer in developing ethanol as an economically viable alternative to fossil fuels. The country produced the first cars to run on ethanol in 1979. In Asia, South Korea has made significant progress in biodiesel production and use recently. Japan plans to produce 6 million kiloliters of biofuel by 2030 using such raw materials as rice straw, wheat straw, rice, beets and ligneous biomass.

     In 2010, worldwide biofuel production reached 105 billion liters, and biofuels provided 2.7% of the world's supply of fuels for road transport. Global ethanol fuel production reached 86 billion liters that year, with the U.S. and Brazil as the world's top producers, accounting for a combined 90% of global production. The European Union is the world's largest biodiesel producer, accounting 53% of all output in 2010.

The wonder plant

India is uniquely poised to tap eco-friendly alternative fuels. Jatropha oil has been used in India for several decades as a fuel substitute in remote rural and forest communities. Biofuel development in India revolves around cultivating and processing Jatropha plant seeds, which are rich in oil -- up to 40%. Jatropha oil is carbon-neutral and its large-scale production will improve India's emission profile. Moreover, it can be used directly after extraction without the need for refinement.

     The Jatropha plant can be cultivated in wastelands, providing an additional source of income to farmers. In 2009, the Indian government announced its National Biofuel Policy with a goal of meeting 20% of India's diesel demand with plant-derived fuel by 2017. The government has identified 400,000 sq. km of land where Jatropha can be grown. Private players Hindustan Petroleum and Maharashtra State Farming jointly set up a Jatropha seed-based biodiesel venture. Chhattisgarh is on its way to becoming a biofuel self-reliant state by 2015.

Future outlook

Biofuel technology is still young, but it will expand exponentially over the next two decades as we get closer to the day when fossil fuels are exhausted. The market for alternative fuels will continue to grow at about 10% annually in the coming decades to replace one-third of transportation fuels. China and India are set to dominate Asia's alternative-fuel market.

     India's total biodiesel requirement is projected to grow to between 4 million and 5 million tons by 2015. However, the market is still emerging and has a long way to go before it catches up with the global competitors. To reduce dependence on petroleum and coal, the International Energy Agency has set a goal of using biofuels to meet more than a quarter of world demand for transportation fuels by 2050.

     Indonesia, China and Malaysia are dominant in biodiesel production, but India is likely to lead Asia's biodiesel growth, according to Lux Research's recent report, "Planning for the Long-term in Asia Pacific Alternative Fuel Markets." Indonesia is targeting 20% adoption by 2025, and Malaysia plans to export biodiesel by about 2015. Until that time, we will have to depend on fossil fuels and hope that biofuel will become a practical reality within the next 20 years.

Tejraj M. Aminabhavi is emeritus professor and research director at Soniya College of Pharmacy, Dharwad, India.