After much euphoria over green hydrogen and other alternative energy options, biofuel has gained worldwide attention with the launching of the GBA in New Delhi. While this is a good initiative, there are many hurdles in the way, and any thought that biofuel would become a total substitute for fossil fuel amounts to wishful thinking at this stage.
The G 20 meeting in New Delhi launched a Global Biofuels Alliance with the participation of more than 30 countries and several international institutions to facilitate the adoption and production of biofuels in a massive way. The formation of the Global Biofuels Alliance (GBA) is justifiably claimed to be a watershed movement in forging ahead towards clean energy and overcoming the climate crisis. It is expected that the GBA will support worldwide efforts for research and development to optimize the production process for biofuels boost the production of biofuels and offer capacity-building support.
Certainly, the objective of the GBA is laudable and timely. However, it is not certain whether adequate spade work and detailed investigation have been completed to assess the issues and evolve the time-bound strategies for achieving the objectives before announcing the Alliance. If it were to be so, then there have been no signs of visible public consultation or official announcements with regard to the issues and strategies.
Incomplete efforts to combat climate crisis :
With the climate crisis and global warming being a grave issue and as measures are needed urgently to overcome the challenges, nothing much has been achieved so far on the ground. Even after several global climate conferences including the last one in Egypt, there have been only promises galore, which received media publicity and not much beyond that. While some steps have been initiated such as applying restrictions on the use of some chemicals such as hydrofluorocarbon ( HFCs), effective steps taken so far are few and far between and the basic issues continue to remain unresolved.
The main cause of global warming and climate crisis is the extensive production and use of fossil fuels based on crude oil and coal and the production of these fossil fuels has not been curtailed in any significant way so far. The countries producing crude oil, natural gas ( which cause emission of noxious methane) and coal have not reduced their production but one only sees signs of increased production of fossil fuels such as coal in India and China. Countries producing crude oil such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Qatar, USA and others have not announced any time-bound plans to curtail production and have refused to commit themselves to any particular schedule for production curtailment.
While the production and use of fossil fuels are continuing, green hydrogen, which is eco-friendly, has been sounded as the ultimate solution to the climate crisis, Green hydrogen is expected to replace fossil fuels as an energy source and also as a feedstock source to some extent. However, for the production of green hydrogen, renewable energy power from wind, solar and hydro is required. It appears that even if a green hydrogen economy were to become successful in theory, the world can never produce enough renewable energy to supply the power required adequately for massive green- hydrogen generation that would be required to substitute fossil fuel. Further, green hydrogen technology is still in the work-in-progress stage and is only evolving at present with no one sure whether it would be economically viable to replace fossil fuels. Research and development efforts are still on and ultimate success for the green hydrogen economy now remains a matter of hope.
Electric vehicles have been recommended as an option to check the climate crisis. But, the batteries for electrical vehicles have to be charged with energy power and adequate renewable energy on a massive scale cannot be made available at any time to charge the very large number of electric vehicles to the level of requirement.
Nuclear power is another eco-friendly option but after the Fukushima accident, it has become a controversial subject.
Afforestation is yet another option but not much progress has been made. A study published in Nature Climate Change in 2022 provided empirical evidence that more than three-quarters of the Amazon rainforest has experienced a decline in resilience since the early 2000s, posing risks of dieback (a disease of trees and shrubs characterized by the death of the young shoots, which spreads to the larger branches) that would impact biodiversity, carbon storage, and climate change.
Focus on biofuel :
After much euphoria over green hydrogen and other alternative energy options, biofuel has gained worldwide attention with the launching of the GBA in New Delhi. While this is a good initiative, there are many hurdles in the way, and any thought that biofuel would become a total substitute for fossil fuel amounts to wishful thinking at this stage. It appears that biofuel can only partly displace fossil fuel as a cleaner, greener option if it were to be adequately developed and produced.
Production of ethanol from biomass and the use of such ethanol as eco-friendly biofuel has been repeatedly suggested by several people, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The biofuel process involves the fermentation of biomass, and not much biofuel is produced in the world today. The availability of biomass for massive production of biofuel is itself a matter of doubt. While several ethanol plants based on biomass have been set up on a pilot scale or semi-commercial scale, the feasibility of massive production of ethanol-based biofuels remains a matter of conjecture.
One obvious option is to grow and use an algae crop which is a quick-growing crop requiring only carbon dioxide and sunshine. It would be a vital option as it contains around 20 to 25 per cent of oil. By processing algae crops, not only biofuel but also ethanol, and methane ( natural gas) can be produced. Till now, algae biofuel has not received the type of global attention that it needs. Hopefully, the Global Biofuels Alliance will put forth maximum efforts to study the feasibility of algae biofuel options and promote focused efforts to develop the technology.
The GBA is an exciting venture but the roadmap has several hurdles and it needs to move quickly beyond conference rooms. A lot of research has to happen for the industrial production of ethanol from alternate feedstocks.
(The author is a Trustee, NGO Nandini Voice for the Deprived, Chennai. Views are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)