SpiceJet's biofuel-powered flight will help environment, boost farm income

SpiceJet flew plane from Dehradun to Delhi using a blend of ATF and biofuel
The other day a Bombardier aircraft belonging to SpiceJet, the country’s second-largest budget airline, flew a distance of over 200 km from Dehradun to Delhi using a blend of aviation turbine fuel (ATF) and biofuel in the ratio of 75:25. In this case, the source of biofuel was jatropha, an oilseed highly rich in energy that can be grown in less productive lands, including wastelands. That the oil derived from jatropha will be good for blending with ATF was established by Dehradun-based Indian Institute of Petroleum. 

SpiceJet Chairman Ajay Singh has every reason to give himself a pat on the back for an initiative that has the promise to cut carbon emissions, reduce the country’s dependence on oil imports and curtail fuel cost of airlines. But this honour could well have been Vijay Mallya’s. At some point before its collapse in October 2012 leaving a consortium of banks with non-performing assets of over Rs90 billion, Kingfisher thought of doping ATF with biofuel. Mallya wanted to do many a thing, including the use of biofuel that Richard Branson did with a flourish. 

What SpiceJet is up to is no doubt a path-breaking initiative for India. But the global airline industry’s quest for a commercially viable, sustainable aviation fuel mix of biofuel and petroleum fuel dates back to February 2008 when a Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet flew from London Heathrow to Schipol airport in Amsterdam. One of the four engines of that jumbo was powered by a fuel mix where the biofuel portion was derived from Brazilian babassu palm nuts and coconuts. Branson said at that point: “The pioneering flight will enable those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future.” 

Singh appears too conservative in saying that the use of biofuel in a blend with ATF could potentially cut airline carbon footprint by 15 per cent. United Airlines, which has to its credit of running regular Los Angeles- San Francisco flights using a mix of 30 per cent biofuel and 70 per cent fossil petroleum fuel, claims the blend leads to a reduction of carbon emissions by over 60 per cent. As the experience of Virgin, United and some other airlines show, their partnerships with technology and research groups and refineries have led to improvements in the quality of biofuels allowing progressive snipping of aircraft carbon emissions. Besides plant sources, technology pioneers have established that industrial waste gases and many other waste streams can be converted into commercially viable sustainable jet fuel. 

Not waiting for biofuels to make the running of aircrafts more and more environment-friendly, Boeing, Airbus and McDonnell Douglas want GE Aviation, Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney to improve the fuel efficiency of airplane engines that will automatically lead to a reduction in carbon emissions. Globally the airline industry is coming under increasing pressure from governments and NGOs to curb greenhouse gas emissions. In spite of the discipline claimed by airlines, their CO2 emissions in 2018 are to grow 4.4 per cent to 897 million tonnes (mt) over 859 mt last year.  This is because commercial airlines will be using 94 billion gallons (bg) of aviation fuel in the current year, up 4 bg over 2017. Airlines produce about 2 per cent of the world greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, the share of the aviation industry in the total energy consumed by the transportation sector is 10 per cent. India is the world’s third largest carbon emitter after the US and China and it also happens to be the world’s third largest domestic aviation market. Research agency Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation says in a report that as the passenger traffic at Delhi IGI airport is likely to exceed 80 million by 2019-20 from 65.7 million in 2017-18, it will overtake London Heathrow. It is in this context New Delhi will be expected to nudge the local airlines to join hands with research agencies to develop advanced biofuels for blending with ATF. 

As of now, however, the Indian focus is on promoting the production of ethanol from sugarcane juice left in the by-product molasses. At the same time, the national policy on biofuels announced earlier this year has identified the scope for extracting ethanol from other “sugar containing materials like beet and sweet sorghum, starch-containing materials like corn and cassava and damaged food grains like wheat, broken rice, rotten potatoes, unfit for human consumption.” 

Not only that, the policy in an attempt to provide relief to farmers says in times of bumper harvest of food grains with prices weakening, the surplus production could be used for making ethanol for blending with petrol. But as a precautionary measure, such use on all occasions will have to be vetted by the National Biofuel Coordination committee. India being highly dependent on edible oil imports, care has to be taken that biodiesel is produced from only non-edible oilseeds and short gestation crops. So, the sources of biodiesel for us will have to be jatropha, hemp and used cooking oils and not soybean or sunflower. What is to be remembered that years after the US started doping gasoline with corn ethanol, controversies continue to swirl over growing use of the crop for fuel making. 

Use of 10 million litres (ml) of E10 (a mix of 10 per cent ethanol and 90 per cent gasoline) will result in foreign exchange saving of over Rs300 million. The supply of cane-based ethanol in the country rose from 380 ml in 2013-14 to 1.4 billion litres (bl) in 2017-18, which, however, is considerably less than the industry capacity of around 2.3 bl. The government for a long time restricting ethanol blending with gasoline at 5 per cent and lack of interest of oil marketing companies (OMCs) in selling hybrid petrol restricted ethanol capacity use. 

But now the crisis in the sugar industry resulting from bumper production in two consecutive years convinced the government that cane crushing factories will get some relief if they are paid higher prices for ethanol and at the same time OMCs are mandated to mix 10 per cent ethanol with gasoline. Sugar factories in the country have so far produced ethanol from only C-molasses from which any more sweetener cannot be produced. But now they are allowed to also make ethanol from B-molasses from which sugar can still be extracted. Any improvement in the working of the industry will enable it to settle unpaid cane bills bringing relief to growers. 

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