Oil provides energy for as much as 95 per cent of transportation needs in the country, and according to the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, petroleum consumption is projected to touch 175 million metric tonnes (MMT) by 2006-07. When one looks at the domestic scenario of production, it becomes apparent that the Indian government is looking at a huge crisis. Out of the known Indian reserves of 660 MMT of crude oil and 648 billion cubic meters of natural gas, only a portion may be technically and economically feasible to exploit. This fact, coupled with the present and expected consumption rates, implies that these reserves may not last even 10 years.

Against this background, dependence on foreign sources of energy has always been a bane for the Indian economy. It is the single biggest drain on the foreign exchange reserves of the country and the uncertainty in the prices of international crude has always kept Indian government and planners on tenterhooks. An increase of $1 per barrel in the price of crude oil prices adds $425 million to our oil import bill. As India imports 70% of the oil it needs, the country has been hit hard by recent increased costs and uncertainty, and is therefore exploring other energy sources. One such effort is the establishment of a national mission on bio-diesel to explore all aspects including plantation, seed procurement, oil extraction, transesterification, blending and trade and development.

Bio-fuels are fuels other than the conventional fossil fuels, and include the ethanol blended petrol and bio diesel, bio hydrogen, and bio diesel. Biologically derived oils and fats comprise three fatty acid chains in which hydrocarbon links are detached during processing to make bio-diesel and glycerin. The bio-diesel is washed and dried, ready for use. The glycerin can be used to make soaps or fermented to make ethanol which is re-used to make more bio-diesel, or it can be burned as a heating fuel. Bio-diesel would be cheap to produce as it can be extracted from certain plant species that are common in many parts of India. It is already in use in Italy, the US, Japan and Malaysia.

Picture: Could the fuel of the future be grown rather than mined?

It would cost India Rs.200 billion to set up the necessary refining plants. According to initial feasibility studies, a plant with a capacity of five tonnes per day can cost up to Rs 20 lakh. The existing tracts of degraded lands in the country, where the agro-climatic conditions are adverse can be easily used for planting hardy tree-borne oil seed species like Mahua, Karanja (Honge), Neem and Jatropha (Arandi). According to the Economic Survey (1995-96), of the cultivable land area about 100-150 million hectares are classified as waste or degraded land. After careful studies, experts have zeroed in on the Jatropha (Jatropha curcas, Ratanjyot, wild castor) as the most likely candidate for wide spread cultivation due to its multiple advantages.

This plant can survive on any soil type found in the country and needs minimal inputs or management. As of now, there are no pests which can affect its growth and it is not browsed by cattle. It can be propagated easily and can withstand long periods of drought. The yield begins from the third year, and continues for 25-30 years. As much as 25% oil can be derived from seeds by expelling; 30% by solvent extraction. The reminder is an excellent organic manure with 38% protein and the remainder is excellent organic manure with sufficient quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, all vital plant nutrients. Further, activities in the vertical chain - including raising nurseries, planting, maintaining, primary processing and oil extraction - are all labour intensive and will generate employment on a large scale. Bio diesel obtained from Jatropha can be used for transport vehicles, generators, railway engines, and irrigation pumps. Large volume of these oils can also be used for manufacturing soap.

Egypt imported Jatropha seeds from India five years back. They were planted in Southern Egypt and irrigated with treated sewage water. The plantations were very successful and now Egypt is bringing more areas under Jatropha cultivation.

 •  Think outside the barrel
 •  Crops for cars?

An investment of Rs 1,430 crore for Jatropha plantation in four lakh hectares can yield about six lakh tones of bio-diesel, valued at Rs 1,020 crore per annum, for about 45 years, after stabilisation of the yield, which may initially take up to four-five years. So far, from about 100 varieties of oil seeds, only 10-12 varieties have been tapped. Only a few million tonnes have been utilized against the estimated potential of about 20 million tonnes per annum.

In a scenario where, upto 10 million ha. of waste land is brought under jatropha cultivation, the yield can be as much as 15 million tons of seed which can be used to generate 4 million tons of oil. This is roughly equal to the one tenth of the requirement of diesel in the country and further, if only 1 person/family is employed per 5 hectares for jatropha cultivation, 2 million jobs can be generated. Seeds generated can be sold at the rate of Rs 4 per kg which means an income of Rs 60,000 per year. The fringe benefits also include 11 million tones of excellent organic manure and 0.4 million tones of technical grade glycerol. All the above benefits are in addition to the reclamation of waste lands in the country and enhancing the forest cover.

Other sources

Ethanol is increasingly being looked upon a potential fuel for powering automobiles. It is obtained through fermentation and distillation from molasses, a bye-product of the sugar industry. Other possible raw materials are cassava, corn, rice straw and potato. Ethanol has been found to be an alternative which can be used in 5 to 10 per cent blend in Petrol. Ethanol, when used in blends with gasoline, enhances the combustion of gasoline due to oxygen molecules resulting in a more efficient burn and reduced emissions. Recent developments have made the ethanol/petrol blend an interesting new alternative for conventional, unmodified petrol vehicles. According to estimates from the National Council for Applied Economic Research, there are 6762 lakh liters of surplus ethanol available (2002) after accounting for all other uses (industrial, potable etc). Further, according to the Ministry of Food & Public Distribution estimates, there is potential for generation of an additional 18,464 litres of ethanol from cereals including rice and wheat.


  • Central Salt & Marine Chemicals Research (CSMCRI) and DaimlerChrysler (DC) have joined hands to conduct more research on 30 hectares of wastelands in Orissa and Gujarat for the cultivation of Jatropha. Daimler Chrysler has also, initiated a project in association with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the University of Hohenhiem, Germany to test run Mercedes Benz C class, across the country on biodiesel. According to officials at Daimler Chrysler, the results have been encouraging.

  • Universities and technology institutes are also taking an interest. The Punjab Agricultural University is actively involved in R&D work on plant oils and their esters. The Indian Institute of Petroleum is pursuing use of non-edible oil for production of bio diesel. The Indian Institute of Chemical Technology has developed a technique to extract oil from Jatropha that is insensitive to moisture; oil of any FFA content can be converted to alkyl ester. In addition, IIT Delhi, IIT Madras and the Indian Oil Corporation are all carrying out research on development of bio fuels from non edible seeds.

  • The National Mission on Bio-fuel is also implementing a phase 1 demo project involving plantations on 4 lakh hectares of land. The Joint Forest Management committees are also being involved in these activities.

  • The Indian Railways has also launched a project involving cultivation of Jatropha in land around railway tracks. Already, a 4000 HP gas turbine powered passenger locomotive has been tested successfully.

  • In Andhra Pradesh, the Lorry Owners Association, which consumes about 82 lakh litres diesel per day, has evinced interest in buying up to 12,500 litres per day of bio-diesel from suppliers.

It is clear from these initiatives that a good beginning has been made. At a time when the country is dealing with an ever-increasing oil import bill, energy security, environment and long term sustainability, the early promise of these experiments is encouraging. However, much more needs to be done - and at a faster pace - to move towards achieving energy security and environmental protection from these beginnings.