As Delhi chokes, Punjab to convert rice husk into bio-jet fuel - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Sunday 10 February 2019

As Delhi chokes, Punjab to convert rice husk into bio-jet fuel

Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, US envoy Ken Juster, to attend signing in Chandigarh

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 11th Feb 19

In a game-changing step towards curbing pollution in Delhi caused by burning of rice husk in Punjab, an Indian firm, Virgo Corporation, will sign an agreement with the Punjab government on Monday to set up a plant that will profitably convert rice husk into bio-jet fuel.

Bio-jet fuel garnered public attention on January 26, when an Indian Air Force (IAF) Antonov-32 aircraft flew in the Republic Day parade partially on bio-jet fuel made from the Jatropha plant. Earlier, in August, a SpiceJet airliner had flown on the same fuel from Dehradun to Delhi, a first in India.

So significant is this initiative for Punjab, that Chief Minister Amarinder Singh will personally attend the signing of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between his government and Virgo in Chandigarh on Monday. 

The technology to extract bio-jet fuel from rice husk is being provided by US giant, Honeywell, which will supply Virgo the technology and processes for setting up a “Rapid Thermal Processing” (RTP) plant – a Honeywell trademark.

US envoy to India, Kenneth Juster, also plans to fly down from Delhi to attend. His embassy has facilitated this initiative with Honeywell.

Every rice harvest in Punjab generates 20 million metric tonnes of paddy straw. Being high in silica, animals refuse to eat it. Set aflame by farmers to clear their land for the next crop, the smoke drifts down to Delhi, causing allergies and lung conditions. Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal regards this as a high priority.

Punjab, a predominantly agrarian state, regards new agriculture-based industries like bio-jet fuel as an essential buffer for when the Centre’s compensation for revenue losses due to the Goods and Services Tax (GST) tails off in 2022 – or, if it is extended – in 2025.

Punjab Finance Minister Manpreet Badal had told Business Standard if new agro-based industries were not encouraged, Punjab would “fall off a financial cliff” when GST compensation was withdrawn.

For Honeywell, success in this project would open the door to processing some 150 million tonnes of surplus bio-mass across India. The feedstock would include non-edible plants like Jatropha, Castor Pongamia, Neem, Mahua, Sal and Kokum, since converting edible crops to fuel remains controversial.

Honeywell’s technology powers the world’s only commercial bio-jet fuel (also called “sustainable aviation fuel”) facility, California-based AltAir Fuels. The technology is called UOP Renewal Jet Fuel Process, after a subsidiary, Universal Oil Products, which set up India’s first oil refinery at Digboi, in 1932.

The impetus for bio-fuel stemmed from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s directive in November 2016 for a 10 per cent reduction in import and consumption of crude oil by 2021-22. The baton was picked up by the IAF, which consumes about 100 crore litres of aviation turbine fuel (ATF) every year. The IAF calculated that blending ATF with 10 per cent bio-jet fuel, would create an annual demand for 10 crore litres of bio-fuel.

IAF sources say they have recommended setting up an inter-ministerial Bio-Jet Fuel Board, and the allocation of Rs 1,000 crore to set up three production plants of 5,000 litres per day, each one using a different feedstock.

The IAF, while leading the bio-fuel charge in India is almost a decade behind the  global curve. The US Air Force (USAF) first flew a fighter aircraft partially powered by bio-jet fuel in 2010. The next year, it certified the C-17 Globemaster III – which the IAF also operates – for unlimited use of hydro-processed blended biofuels.

Meanwhile, the Royal Netherlands Air Force, starting from January14, 2019, began flying all its F-16 fighters with fuel containing five per cent bio-jet fuel imported from California.

In India, the cultivation of bio-fuel feedstock started when Jatropha captured the public eye in 2005. It grows on arid wasteland, requires no fertilizer or water, and has a high oil yield. Jatropha is used as a fence in villages, since animals don’t eat it. The challenge has been to grow it as an industrial crop, which has been taken up by the Chattisgarh Biodiesel Development Authority (CBDA). 

To process the Jatropha oil into bio-jet fuel and testing and certifying it, the IAFhas funded a collaborative technology development project with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP).

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