Friday, August 19, 2005

President Kalam and the Physic nut

India's current and future energy consumption is a matter of worldwide concern. So when the President Dr Abdul Kalam spoke of energy independence on the eve of India's independence day, it created quite a buzz.

The speech can be found in its entirety on his website

It is often refreshing to listen to the President. Being a scientist himself, he understands the issues and the technologies involved. His style has always been to use science, statistics, economics and vision to create positive public debates and industry participation. I found his emphasis on renewable energy in the speech very reassuring. But... He goes on to promote Coal and Thorium based nuclear energy also. Add to that, he only vaguely refers to global warming. So, I found the speech inspiring and yet disappointing!

India consumes about 114 million tons of oil annually. Almost the whole of that (112 million tons) is used in the transportation sector. Simply put, to solve the problem of oil dependence one needs to focus on transportation. So when the President says that there is a potential to replace 60 million tons (50%) of oil imports with eco friendly bio diesel from energy plantations like "Jatropha" on degraded waste land...... My green radar system screams "WHAT ? HOW ? WHERE ? SERIOUS ?". My Google happy fingers furiously search for more information.

So what is Jatropha ? Jatropha Curcas aka Physic nut is a low growing tree native to South America. It is now grown in many parts of Africa and Asia. It is a vigorous drought and pest resistant plant. It can grow in soil degraded land and even better, is known to restore soil nutrients. The plant has several medicinal value. Most importantly its seeds have high oil content. A hectare of relatively dry degraded land is known to produce about 1 ton of oil. The oil has excellent bio diesel properties and India has about 60 million hectares of degraded land. Hence, the President's statement (and the title of my post)

The plant has been known to the natives of South America for centuries. It was brought into the spotlight by two professors at University of Hohenheim, Prof Dr K Becker and Prof Dr G Francis. Their case study on India and Jatropha can be found here

The study finds production of bio diesel to be almost carbon neutral. If India were to successfully deploy Jatropha, not only can India reduce its oil dependence but also gain significant carbon credits. The Center for Jatropha promotion in India is already engaged in this activity.

Now, before we make Jatropha the next super hero, we need to understand certain things. For one it is a non native plant. The perils of introducing non native vegetation is a common painful knowledge. Also, the idea is to cultivate the plant in wastelands and not on viable farmlands. If Jatropha is to go the way Ethanol is going in North America, it might not be entirely carbon neutral and eco friendly.

A burgeoning Indian population is exerting immense pressure on existing forest cover. Unregulated human activity is creating more and more wastelands. Small and medium farmers are suffering from drought and land degradation. From what I have read so far, I think, Jatropha has the potential of creating a positive impact in India. I hope it doesn't create a negative one

Quote of the day
"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world"...John Muir


Jennifer said...

Wow! I didn't know any of that. Thanks for such great information. It would be such a novel idea of having a President who understands the science behind our oil problem.

Deepak said...

I too have heard about this bio-diesel thing. Why is it that it is still sidelined? Is it because petrol is still cheap enough? Or is it because the 'diesel' is not of high quality? Or is it simply because it has not reached the 'tipping point', so to say?

One More Reason said...

I agree. It would be great if all the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the world were visionaries and not just politicians

You bring a good point. Today Diesel is subsidized quite a bit (by Indian gov). So there is the price/viability factor when it comes to bio diesel.

More importantly, bio diesel procurement and commerical distribution is not yet in place. Here is an article on sify about the latest bio diesel procurement plans (via indicview)
India's major oil companies have started a program to buy bio diesel for 23 rs/litre. Bio diesel will then be blended into diesel

The article says it might be 4-5 years before bio diesel hits mainstream.

I will try and gather more info

Jithu said...

cool! that was a new info for me, the bio-diesel producing plant.. hope the govt. will take req. measures in that angle...

One More Reason said...


There are some steps being taken. A center for bio diesel credits has been started

I haven't yet been able to understand what this credit agency is meant for.

Central Salt & Marine Chemicals Research Institute is also involved in research and deployment

Prabhu said...

More info on the same

Chris said...

Great post! Very interesting. My car will be dead in the next 4 - 5 yrs... maybe by then, the bio-diesel versions will be available (as well as the fuel).

If I'm paying $3/gal for gasoline, I would gladly pay the same for a fuel that's both renewable, and better on the environment. It seems like a winner.