Delhi air pollution: US tech to convert rice stubble into biofuel, not smog

While Delhi’s residents work through a blanket of choking smog, caused largely by farmers burning fields of rice stubble in Punjab, the key to at least alleviating this problem was turned in Bangkok on Monday.


The United States Trade Development Authority (USTDA) signed up to allocate a grant of $300,000-500,00 to Indian engineering firm, The Virgo Group, to carry out a ‘scoping study’ for setting up a plant near Bhatinda that will convert the stubble from harvested rice fields into green biofuel.


The scoping study will determine how much biofuel can be extracted from the rice stubble. Based on the study, Virgo’s Bhatinda plant will customise Rapid Thermal Processing technology from Envergent Technologies – a subsidiary of US technology giant Honeywell – to convert agricultural waste into biocrude, reducing air pollution and creating a new fuel source.


The project is being strongly supported by the Punjab government, which signed an agreement with Virgo on February 11 for facilitating the plant, including with concessional land. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh himself attended that signing.

Also backing the project is US envoy to India, Kenneth Juster, who was at the signing in Bangkok.


“We are extremely grateful to the Government of India, Government of Punjab, USTDA, the US Embassy in Delhi and our technical collaborators Honeywell US in jointly working with us to overturn one of the most serious environmental challenges that India is currently facing,” said Kanav Monga of the Virgo Group after the signing.

Another key driver of this project is Punjab’s finance minister Manpreet Badal, who belongs to Bhatinda, where the Bhatinda Refinery will blend the green biofuel with regular diesel.


The phrase being used for this ecology-friendly refining is ‘eco-fine’.


Honeywell sources say the scoping study will take approximately 13 weeks, after which the company can begin customising the Rapid Processing Technology plant for Punjab’s peculiar rice stubble.


This initiative brings together two imperatives of the central government. In August 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for the country to save $1.7 billion a year on imported hydrocarbon fuel, by blending green biofuels with standard ethanol.


Separately, the Union Cabinet and Delhi government are grappling with the problem of Delhi’s toxic air, caused by rice stubble burning, which has not improved despite measures like taking vehicles off the road through an ‘odd-even’ scheme that allows them to ply only on alternate days. Converting rice stubble into biodiesel is seen as converting a problem into an opportunity.


Organisations like the Indian Air Force (IAF), whose aircraft consume 100 crore litres of aviation turbine fuel (ATF) per year, are seeing an opportunity in green biofuel. If it can achieve its goal to substitute 10 per cent of its ATF with biofuels, it would save 10 crore litres of ATF each year.


While only biofuel made from Jatropha has currently been certified for aircraft, there is a potential to source it from 150 million tonnes of surplus biomass feedstock across India, including from non-edible plants like castor pongamia, neem, mahua, sal and kokum. Now, rice stubble presents an inviting new opportunity.


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