India and Cellulosic Ethanol [2G Ethanol]

Cellulosic ethanol, also known as Second generation (2G) ethanol is not produced from starch or sugar but from cellulose fibers, which are found in abundance in plant cell walls.

Introduction

Biofuels are derived from biomass such as plants and animal materials.  The biomass is converted to biofuels by Thermal conversion or Chemical Conversion or Biochemical Conversion. The resultant fuel from these processes can be used as an alternative to fossil fuels.

What is problem with conventional ethanol?

Currently, ethanol is made from carbohydrates, either sugar or starch. The sources of these two easily breakable molecules are sugarcane, sorghum, corn, paddy, potato etc. But there is a shortage of conventional feedstock for bio-ethanol production. One example, our Government launched the National Policy on Biofuels in 2008, which sets an ambitious target of 20% ethanol blending by 2017. But, only less than 3% of ethanol blending with petrol has been implemented so far. The problem is due to supply-side issues including competition from the beverage industry.

Moreover, the use of these products tends to lead to increase in food prices, mainly on account of demand of huge arable land needed for these crops.

What is Cellulosic Ethanol?

Cellulosic ethanol, also known as Second generation ethanol is not produced from starch or sugar but from cellulose fibers, which are found in abundance in plant cell walls. Humans cannot digest cellulose and it is enormously available. The IAEA says that the cellulosic ethanol can allow ethanol fuels to play a much bigger role in the future than previously imagined. The feedstock for this second generation alcohol is the agricultural residues containing cellulosic biomass (e.g. stalks, leaves, bagasse, and husks of rice, wheat, wood chips, sawdust or energy crops.). The lignocellulose fibers contained in the residue can also be converted into fermentable sugars.

Challenges

This conversion relies heavily on the use of enzymes and enzyme manufacturers have been successful in identifying the right enzyme to use at the right stage of the process. During the process, lignin can also be extracted from the biomass. Lignin is a polymer that burns very well. It can further be used to produce power to meet the facility’s energy needs and excess green energy can be sold to the local grid.

Current Status worldwide

The cellulosic ethanol technology has already become a reality with the first commercial plant already operational in Italy by Beta Renewables. Slowly but surely, countries are shifting to renewable energy source in the Biofuels segment. While most of them are currently blending gasoline with ethanol produced from the first generation, governments are progressively supporting and promoting the need for cellulosic ethanol.

Economic Benefits

In India, the agricultural sector, which has long been the backbone of our economy, also presents a unique opportunity to develop cellulosic ethanol industry because of the availability of vast agricultural residues. It is estimated that by 2020, between 125 million and 183 million tonnes of biomass residues will be available annually in India for conversion in cellulosic ethanol. Thus, without changing today’s agricultural land-use patterns or cultivating new energy crops the available biomass residue could be converted into approximately 50 billion litres of cellulosic ethanol annually.

Cellulosic ethanol industry will also lead to the following benefits:

  • It will create a million aggregated jobs predominantly be in rural areas, enhancing India’s agricultural sector and providing impetus to inclusive growth.
  • Catalyze rural development by generating up to $ 15 – $20 billion of annual revenues in India by 2020, leading to inclusive growth especially in the rural economy.
  • Reduce road transport greenhouse gas emissions from fossil gasoline by 47-69%. CO2 and methane emissions would also decrease as biomass residues not be burned or decompose in the field.

The Government has already sponsored cellulosic ethanol pilot projects in the country and a few private companies have also announced their plans for initial demonstration plants. Although there is positive intent from the Government, stable & coherent policy framework is required to fast-track the deployment of second generation biofuels including:

  • Blending mandates
  • Loan guarantees
  • Private/public co-financing
  • Biomass collection programs, and
  • Infrastructure directed towards end consumers (e.g. pipelines and blending infrastructures).

How to fast track?

Some steps that can be considered to fast track the second-generation ethanol industry:

  • India’s policy-makers could introduce an India-wide mandate for next-generation ethanol especially given the ongoing debate over first-generation ethanol availability
  • The absence of any incentive to collect agricultural residues and the requisite infrastructure to preserve and transport them hinders the development of a second-generation ethanol market in the short term
  • Government support for first movers in the segment as it will certainly be a high investment proposition initially

Therefore, although India has the Biofuels policy and the resources to implement it, the support and the push from the Government with proactive steps will make the cellulosic ethanol a reality in India in the best interest of the economy and overall development of farmers.

CSE Mains: Writing Practice / Discussion Question

Although 2G (Second Generation) Ethanol can play a very important role in economy, employment and environment protection yet, despite of several positives, India faces numerous challenges.” Critically discuss while suggesting policy actions to provide positive momentum to second generation ethanol Industry in the country. {Source}

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