Saturday, April 12, 2014


Suman Sahai

There is a view that the Brazilian model of sugar cane based ethanol is what we should follow for transportation. But is ethanol a viable alternative fuel for India as it is for Brazil ? India first promoted an ethanol blending policy in 2002, making  it mandatory for oil providers to blend  oil with five percent ethanol.  This policy never took off since there are fundamental problems with it which cannot be wished away with the pronouncement of an inadequately thought through diktat.  India’s production of ethanol is based on sugarcane. Its production of a little over 2000 million liters annually is claimed mainly by two sectors, the manufacturers of  IMFL(Indian Made Foreign Liquor ) and  the chemical industry. The ethanol production in India is simply not enough to satisfy the demands of the liquor and chemical industry and also provide ethanol for five percent blending . This and the fact that sugar cane production fluctuates greatly from year to year, are  the principal reasons why  the government’s  ethanol blending policy has not taken off.

Brazil’s ethanol production stands at about 23 to 24 billion litres annually ,roughly ten times what India produces . This is more than enough to  satisfy its  diverse domestic  needs, divert  ethanol as fuel  and leave over enough to export to other countries like India.  Brazil with a land mass of over 8.5 million square km is more than twice the size of the Indian land mass at 3.2 million square km. The population of Brazil at 198 million, is a fraction of India’s 1.24 billion and growing population which needs substantial amounts of  land and water to produce food.

Most significantly, Brazil’s water resources are enormous, of central importance  for a water guzzling crop like sugar cane.  To compare at the level of river basin volume, as an indicator of water availability, Brazil has a total river basin volume of  over 11 million square km whereas  India’s river basin volume  stands at some 3 million square km.  The fact is that India’s sugar cane production is largely based on ground water which is being overexploited, with many ground water blocks having become critical. 

In addition to its huge advantage with natural resources,  Brazil also has a very small population compared to India. It is a percentage of this small population  that is the consumer  of ethanol biofuels.  India’s  large population base  would  have a much greater demand for ethanol as fuel . Can India divert more land and water  to increase sugar cane production for ethanol  to satisfy its ethanol needs  without coming into conflict with its food and nutrition needs ?

To suggest that India should follow Brazil’s ethanol example, is to turn a blind eye to India’s ground realities. Most notably, India’s grinding poverty ,its shocking levels of hunger and malnutrition (India is home to the largest number of hungry and malnourished people in the world), must force us to stop and reflect on the way we should use our land and water. Should these critical resources be used to  grow more food or should the land and water be diverted to the production of sugarcane for ethanol for cars.

Clearly, ethanol cannot be a long term or sustainable  option for India, nor for that matter , can Jatropha derived diesel .Any source of alternative fuel that will work ,  can only be one that does  not divert land and water from the production of food and  maintaining the integrity  of ecosystems and biodiversity. However, before introducing an alternative plan, we must realize that the most logical way for India to reduce its dependence on imported oil and  minimize the pollution from fossil fuel combustion is to rationalize its system of transportation.  The proposal favoring public transport over private transport will always remain valid because it is the only sustainable way of transportation. The bane of our transportation system is following the American model of personal motorized transport  without having America’s resources .  The number of personal cars that are allowed on to the road every month, in one city alone,  is unsustainable for the planet and  a  recipe for global disaster.

India has access to at least two  sources of viable energy for transportation. The first is solar energy , abundant and free which remains  practically unexploited barring primitive solar heaters  and solar light panels. The other really promising option is more high tech, to produce alcohol by fermenting algae.  Algal oil and alcohol along with solar generated power is the way forward for alternative fuels. Algae can produce up to 300 times more oil per unit area than crops such as sugarcane or Jatropha. As algae have a short life cycle, they can be harvested every  1–10 days. Sugarcane takes the best lands, masses of water  and blocks the farmer’s land for almost a year. 

Algae can be grown in open ponds or bioreactors which are just plastic or glass containers through which nutrient rich water is pumped. The water can be brackish or wastewater, fresh water is not required. And algae yield two types of biofuels. The lipid, or oily part can be used to produce biodiesel and  the carbohydrate in the algae biomass can be fermented into bioethanol and biobutanol. This is a promising way to move ahead.


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