Nearly 80 per cent petro products consumed in India are made from imported crude oil. The country has been searching for alternative energy sources, using technology, for years. Global oil major Royal Dutch Shell may have an answer.
A catalyst being developed by Shell Technology Centre Bangalore (STCB), one of the three tech hubs of Shell besides the ones in Houston and Amsterdam, holds out the promise of converting agricultural and municipal waste into liquid transport fuel. India produces 60 billion tonnes of municipal waste and 200 million tonnes of agricultural waste every year. If the experiment succeeds and is commercialised, it could generate 60-80 million tonnes of biofuel and meet a large part of India's energy needs.
Shell labels the conversion process, developed in partnership with the US government-funded Gas Technology Institute, as IH2 (IH Square).
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The emphasis is on producing biofuels that can be used with existing engines and infrastructure. Globally, several companies are trying to produce biofuels using pyrolysis, a method under which biomass is subjected to high pressure and heat in an atmosphere that does not have oxygen. This leads to decomposition, yielding solids, liquids and gases. The gases, which are rich in carbon, can be liquefied to make biofuel. Apart from Shell, others such as Ensyn and Kholsa Ventures-backed Kior have also tried their hand at this.
Laxmi Narasimhan, General Manger, Centre for Novel Catalytic Materials at the Bangalore centre, who has the professorial air of an academic, explains how the IH2 process works. "We take city waste, crop residue, wood/forest residue, energy crops and algae, which are then sorted, sized and dried. These are then fluidized where a proprietary catalyst system takes over... What mother nature takes millions of years to do, we do it in 90 seconds, and the result is a distilled hydrocarbon." He says Shell has filed for nine patents.
Alan Del Paggio, Vice President, CRI Catalyst Company, a part of Royal Dutch Shell, says that this method does one better than nature. "Nature produces crude oil, but what we produce is refined oil, which is ready to be used." Today, the end-distilled hydrocarbon can yield gasoline, jet fuel and diesel. If the technology comes to fruition, says Baroruchi Mishra, VP Engineering (East), Shell Projects and Technology, it can deal with a lot of challenges that India faces. "Agricultural waste, which farmers burn, could prove to be an enormous boon if harnessed in the right manner. We are not in a rush to bring this to the market as we want to iron out all the possible kinks by running pilot plants. We are not declaring victory early. However, we are confident of success as it is a proven technology. We have to only ensure scalability." Shell and Mishra are hoping that the government will work with them to take it to the commercial stage.
Shell wants government support in interfacing with farmers, handling of municipal waste and putting up plants to ensure that the technology works at scale. "We want local governments to have skin in the game and this to be a genuine public-private partnership. This is not about money. We have already spent $40 million on this and are ready to spend more. But the government will have to work with us to ensure that the plants are up and running. We hope to have this commercialised in 15-18 months, hopefully with the government's support," says Mishra.
What about competitors? Paggio is dismissive on that score. He points out that while Kior is in the process of restructuring after going into receivership, Ensyn has had financial difficulties. Ensyn's products, claims Paggio, have low calorific content and can be used in things such as boilers but not in vehicles. "The market they are addressing is much more limited," he adds.
There have been several attempts to convert garbage into fuel, but Shell, with its IH2 technology, seems to have come closest to making this a commercial reality. The day it becomes a reality, India can hope to cut its oil import bill. The distribution and generation of biofuel could even be an engine to create jobs.
WHY JATROPHA AND ETHANOL FAILED
Jatropha was touted as a miracle plant for oil-starved nations. A hardy leafy and green plant, it thrives in semi-arid climates and low-nutrient wastelands, providing a steady supply of bio-diesel.
India, which has over 67 million hectares of wasteland, allotted a million hectares of land to grow the plant in 2009. It has still not yielded the desired results. The crop yield was estimated during trials at 10 tonnes per hectare. It turned out to be a fifth of this.
Farmers realised that the plant did not grow in alkaline and saline wasteland. Jatropha was said to require no irrigation whereas in reality it required some amount of water. It also suffered some diseases, reducing its yield.
Ethanol is an alcohol fuel that when mixed with petro products can reduce cost and lower the impact on the environment. Even though the Centre has mandated 5:95 blend of ethanol and petrol, the current blending rate is less than 1.5 per cent. Oil marketing companies and ethanol manufacturers blame each other for this.
India requires about 115 crore litres of ethanol to meet the 5 per cent target. Sugar mills and co-operatives, which are the major producers of ethanol, say the current price of ethanol fixed by the Centre, Rs 48.5 a litre, makes it unviable.