India’s First Biofuel Refinery Using Bamboo

Sustainable economic and industrial growth requires safe, sustainable resources of energy. For the future re-arrangement of a sustainable economy to biological raw materials, completely new approaches in research and development, production, and economy are necessary. Energy plays a vital role in the economic growth of any country. Current energy supplies in the world are unsustainable from environmental, economic, and societal standpoints. All over the world, governments have initiated the use of alternative sources of energy for ensuring energy security, generating employment, and mitigating CO2 emissions.

The crude oil price has been fluctuating in the world market and has increased significantly in the recent past. Such unforeseen escalation of crude oil prices is severely straining various economies the world over, particularly those of the developing countries like India. India’s energy security would remain vulnerable until alternative fuels to substitute petro-based fuels are developed based on indigenously produced renewable feedstocks. Biofuels have emerged as an ideal choice to meet these requirements. In biofuels, the country has a ray of hope in providing energy security. Biofuels are environment friendly fuels and their utilization would address global concerns about containment of carbon emissions.

Biofuels have been around as long as cars have. At the start of the 20th century, discoveries of huge petroleum deposits kept gasoline and diesel cheap for decades, and biofuels were largely forgotten. However, with the recent rise in oil prices, along with growing concern about global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions, biofuels have been regaining popularity.

Gasoline and diesel are actually ancient biofuels. But they are known as fossil fuels because they are made from decomposed plants and animals that have been buried in the ground for millions of years. Biofuels are similar, except that they’re made from plants grown today. Countries around the world are using various kinds of biofuels. For decades, Brazil has turned sugarcane into ethanol, and some cars there can run on pure ethanol rather than as additive to fossil fuels. And biodiesel, a diesel-like fuel commonly made from palm oil is generally available in Europe.

With Indian oil marketing companies (OMCs) witnessing a surge in the requirement of bio-fuel, as national policies mandate certain percentage of its blending with petrol and diesel, India will get its first bio-fuel refinery in Assam. A biofuel refinery, the first-of-its-kind in India, is being set up at the Numaligarh Refinery (NRL) in Assam, in partnership with Chempolis Oy, a Finland-based company. The 1,000-crore project will use bamboo, which grows abundantly in the region, as its feedstock and produce fuel grade bio-ethanol. Bamboo from North-East could soon fire up cars on our roads.

Presently, the ‘National Policy on bio-fuel 2009’ mandates 10% blending of petrol and diesel and targets to up this level to 20% in near future. The refinery would be producing 49,000 tonnes of ethanol annually and this would primarily be used to blend petrol and diesel of NRL and the surplus will be sold to other oil marketing companies to cater to the Eastern and Northeastern markets. The production will demand 500,000 tones of bamboo every year. Such projects would support Bamboo Farming and increase the cultivation area in the years to come. “This refinery project will link local farmers of the region to the hydrocarbon economy of the nation. It has the potential to bring around an economic revolution in the rural areas of Northeast similar to what tea has been doing in Assam,” said Union Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister, Dharmendra Pradhan.

NRL and Chempolis jointly undertook an assessment study for ascertaining the availability of the required feedstock in Northeastern India. The Finnish company also carried out experimental testing of various specimens of bamboo and other potential biomass feedstock materials available in the region and provided the entire pre-project technical consultancy required for completion of the Detailed Feasibility Study for the project.

The project is expected to give a fillip to bamboo cultivation in the region and help bring an economic transformation for many in rural areas. The refinery has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Nagaland Bamboo Development Agency (NBDA) for sourcing of 2 lakh tonnes of semi-processed bamboo from Nagaland annually and with the Arunachal Pradesh Bamboo Resources Development Agency (APBRDA) to procure 3 lakh tonnes of bamboo annually. Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who has already written to the Centre for a subsidy in upgradation of NRL, said: “This is a project with huge potential. Mizoram has been consciously planting bamboo for a while now. In Assam, Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao areas are thick with bamboo trees. If harnessed well, this project will lead to rapid development in the region.”

The company in 2014 had signed a partnership agreement with the Finnish company for jointly implementing the “world-class” project. Chempolis Oy has developed a patented technology – formicobio, for processing non-food raw materials into cellulosic ethanol, cellulosic sugars, bio-chemicals and bio-coal. A team from the refinery has left for Finland to study Chempolis Oy’s patented method, named formicobio, which extracts ethanol and biofuel from non-food crops.

The requirement of bio-fuel is expected to shoot-up in Northeastern states post 2017 as the exemption of selling blended petrol and diesel would end by then. The project has been planned keeping in view the future demand of bio-fuel in the region. As this project is now made part of the ‘Hydrocarbon Vision 2030 for Northeast,’ it is expected that things would move fast.

Production of fuel grade bio-ethanol is expected to reduce NRL’s requirement of imported Methyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether (MTBE) and Py-Gas for petrol blending due to higher octane number of ethanol and would result in net savings for the company.

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