In August 2018, Rajasthan became the first Indian state to implement a biofuel policy. The nationwide policy had been unveiled by the centre in May of the same year. The state has already installed a bio-diesel plant with a capacity of 8 tonnes per day. Alongside, efforts will be made to encourage usage of biofuels, with initiatives like advertisements and self-help groups (SHGs).
So, what are biofuels, and why is our government making increasing efforts to promote their use? Are they really the future of the country, as advertised and claimed? Let’s find out.
What are biofuels, and why are they gaining wide popularity?
In simple words, biofuel is any liquid fuel that has been derived through biological means, such as agricultural wastes, trees etc. In countries like the United States, agricultural products like switchgrass, soybean are used to extract biofuels. However, in India, we mainly make use of corn, sugarcane, Jatropha seeds, and so on.
So, what makes biofuels different from the conventional forms? For starters, while petrol, diesel etc are fossil fuels, and therefore, highly non-renewable in nature; biofuels, on the other hand, can also be generated from simple materials like agricultural waste. Here are some of the major advantages associated with this alternative source of fuels:
- Cost-effective: Some bio-diesels in India get sold for as low as Rs 46/litre. Taken in the present situation especially, they become an attractive alternative to petroleum products. With improved efficiency, and appropriate research, the prices of biofuels can hopefully be lowered further, while at the same time increasing access to them.
- Advantage to farmers: Some biofuel sources like Jatropha, can be grown on an otherwise uncultivable piece of land, thereby putting farmers at an obvious place of advantage. Moreover, they can use some of their agricultural wastes for generating biofuels.
- Lack of dependence on fuel imports: India currently imports about 80% of its oil requirements. Switching to homegrown sources of fuel, therefore, will reduce our dependency on foreign countries.
- Good for the environment: With planet Earth facing new problems each day, the greatest advantage of biofuels is their comparative eco-friendly traits. Research shows that combustion of biofuels lead to lower carbon emissions. Moreover, they are known for reducing greenhouse gases by a staggering 65%, as compared to fossil fuels.
No dark clouds?
If biofuels are as promising as they sound so far, why is it that their progress into mainstream consumption has still been very slow? Also, are there zero disadvantages to these fuels, or do dark clouds linger? The first question has a simple enough answer. We have been using conventional fossil fuels since centuries. Naturally then, their means of extraction and production have been around and smoothly working since a very long time.
Now, back to the second question. Do biofuels come with zero disadvantages? Sadly, no. Ironically, while the main argument for biofuels is their eco-friendliness, there are some downsides that prove otherwise. Let’s take a brief look at some of the negative points:
- Food vs Energy: The main dilemma attached to the use of biofuels is the issue of “food vs energy”. The argument is multi-fold. One, in our country, crops like sugarcane are among the chief contributors to our biofuel industry, given their high sugar extent. However, these are also highly crucial for our consumption, especially given the country’s massive population. Secondly, while crops like Jatropha can be grown on lands that are otherwise non-cultivable, but that is not always the case. So, if fields that would otherwise be used for food production, are dedicated to biofuels- it poses an obvious problem.
- Monoculture: The term refers to the practice of cultivating the same crop on a field, year after year, instead of rotating between different crops. This slowly deprives the soil of its inherent nutrients, leaving it less fertile over time.
- Harm to the environment: Biofuels may lead to less pollution when consumed, however, their production comes very close to even that balance out. The production, while using a lot of water, often emits large amount of emissions. It also causes a little amount of water pollution as well.
There is no denying that while from a distant view, biofuels seem almost perfect, and a solution to all our problems. I mean they are cheaper, easy to produce, easily renewable, environment friendly- what more can one want? However, nothing is perfect, and this holds true for biofuels as well. But, when we compare these to the traditional fossil fuels, perhaps the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
That being said, India still needs to go a long way before mainstream use of biofuels becomes a reality. Initiatives should be undertaken to encourage research in this field, so that in the coming decades, we can produce better and more efficient biofuels. Despite all, the future does look promising.