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Algae biofuel could offer solution to India's energy crisis

N S Venkataraman, June 29, 2012, 23:08 IST

India is now going through an unprecedented energy crisis and no one seems to be certain as to how the country would come out of the situation. The present import of crude oil in India is around 180 million tonnes per annum.

With the production of crude oil remaining nearly stagnant, it is expected that the import of crude oil will exceed 240 million tonnes per annum in the next five years, if the GDP growth of around 6 to 7 per cent were to be sustained.

India is now importing around 80 million tonnes per annum of coal. A number of new coal based thermal power projects are being implemented. As Coal India is often unable to meet even the existing committed supply, it is likely that the Indian import of coal will exceed 150 million tonnes per annum by 2017. The natural gas production from the Reliance-operated Krishna Godavari basin has been disappointing with the production of gas presently hovering only around 50 per cent of the envisaged natural gas production from KG basin. With natural gas production also unlikely to increase substantially in the near future, India will become a big importer of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and thousands of crores of rupees have to be invested in building LNG terminals in different coastal regions in the country.

The net result of this scenario would be that Indian industry and economy would become highly vulnerable to international price and supply pressure for crude oil, coal and natural gas in the near future. To avoid this situation, the country has to urgently find an appropriate alternate source of energy in tune with the country’s strength, geographical conditions and the need.

Algae biofuel

It is indeed surprising that India has not seriously considered the algae biofuel as an alternative means of energy. More than 99 per cent of commercial algae biomass produced worldwide currently is mainly from seaweeds farmed near the seashore. India should not let go the opportunity to utilise the algae, that can be cultivated in large quantity in the Indian coastal regions. Algae can be used as a source for biofuel and bioethanol; apart from this, algae can also be used for the production of hydrogen (for use in fuel cells); and production of methane.

Already, more than one hundred firms across the world are working on cultivation and harvesting of algae biomass.The US Department of Energy’s (DOE), National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap, envisages an important role for algae in the energy management in the coming years all over the world.

While large scale production for algae based biofuels is expected to start between now and 2020 in the developed countries, the work on development of technology and engineering practices for production of algae biofuel in India is still in a nascent stage.

The biggest challenge in algae biofuel production is cutting the cost which is estimated to run to more than $20 a gallon at present. Researchers are trying to figure out how to grow enough of the right strains of algae and how to extract the oil most efficiently. If the cost of production can be reduced, the advantages of algae, as it grows much faster and in less space than conventional energy crops, can be well harnessed.

Advantages for India

Algae is the third generation biofuel and can be an ideal solution for India’s impending fuel crisis, as India’s long coastal region and tropical climate can facilitate the cultivation of algae in India in mass scale. This calls for strong and dedicated efforts from Government and industries.

The several advantageous salient features of algae in Indian conditions include the following:

* The country’s enormous diversity
* Vast coastline
* Sufficient solar energy
* Does not compete with food crops for land availability
* Can grow in places away from forests, thus minimising the damages caused to the eco-and-food
chain systems

So far some initiatives have been taken by Government of India to promote research and development efforts on cultivation of algae and production of biofuel from algae in recent times. A National Algae Biofuel Network has been launched by the Centre in 2008-09 with the participation of 12 national laboratories/institutions/universities to work on algae biofuel focusing on the aspects like: collection and characterisation of algal strains from different ecological niches and deposition of the same in 3 repositories; development of different production systems; improved algal strains for more oil/ lipid content and lastly, design development and fabrication of low cost and pilot scale bio-reactors for cultivation of algae for biofuels and technology.

The tasks are really being pursued at a snail’s pace and they are now largely confined to a few government owned research laboratories and universities. For all practical purposes, there is no participation from private sector industries and research establishments. There is need for highly focused and time bound efforts. Algae biofuel represents a great opportunity.The challenges can be overcome by initiating necessary research and application development efforts on a priority basis.

The Centre should consider setting up dedicated research facilities for algae biofuel, with the target of developing adequate expertise with regard to technology and engineering practices for production of algae biofuel in the country in the next five years. This may call for an investment of around Rs 3,000 crores over a period of five years and around 500 dedicated scientists and engineers at different levels to achieve the objectives within the targeted period.

India should join the global race for research and development on algae biofuel and should not let go this opportunity that would enable the country to find a solution to its impending energy crisis.

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