Biofuels: Our solution to the petroleum crisis

Banta Singh: Yaar Santa, these rising petrol prices are burning holes in my pocket. It now costs Rs 70 a litre! Santa Singh: Nah, they don’t affect me at all. I always fill Rs 50 petrol

Published: 01st February 2012 11:27 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 05:47 PM   |  A+A-

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(Express News Photo)

Banta Singh: Yaar Santa, these rising petrol prices are burning holes in my pocket. It now costs Rs 70 a litre!

Santa Singh: Nah, they don’t affect me at all. I always fill Rs 50 petrol in my bike.

Our good friend, Santa Singh might not be affected by the rising fuel prices, but we all have seen the sudden escalation of fuel prices in recent times. We all have heard our parents worry about tweaking the household budget to accommodate petrol bills. Rising fuel prices are attributed to depleting petroleum reserves, the basic raw material for the fuel that we use today.

Researchers have predicted that at the current rate, petroleum reserves will run dry by the end of the 21st century. These petroleum reserves are limited in nature. They were formed when large areas of forests were buried under sea beds and the organic matter decomposed into the crude petroleum oil that is found under sea beds today. The oil is sucked from under the sea bed and processed to obtain fuels that we use on a day to day basis: petrol, diesel and LPG.

The world has got so accustomed to using these fuels that we never realised that they  came with an expiry date. Imagine a world without planes, cars and trains!

Many scientists have started researching alternatives to the  fuels that we use. These alternatives need to be lasting and renewable in nature. Initial attempts at replacing fuels with electricity to run cars have proved successful. However, the performance of these cars does not match that of the conventional petrol or diesel-run engines.

So it becomes necessary to replace existing fuels. Enter: Biofuels. Biofuels are defined as fuels derived from plant sources which have similar properties to  conventional fuels. Biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel can be used in existing car engines.

In fact, the first diesel engine developed by Rudolf Diesel was run on peanut oil.

Bioethanol is obtained from crops such as sugarcane, potato and barley. These are crushed and the pulp is fermented to obtain ethanol. Bioethanol can be mixed with petrol up to 10-20 per cent. The mixing process is known

as blending.

Bioethanol works the same way as petrol in a car engine, when blended in the above proportions with satisfactory results.

Similarly, biodiesel is obtained from oils of plants like neem, soybean, cotton or groundnut. The oil is processed to be converted into biodiesel which again can be blended with diesel to run automobiles. There have been successful attempts at running bus services on soybean biodiesel in the USA. In India, the Indian Railways uses biodiesel blended with petroleum diesel to run their diesel powered locomotive engines.

Although these fuels provide a viable solution to the petroleum crisis, they come with their own set of problems. The raw materials required for these fuels are crops which need to be produced on a large scale. A lot of agricultural land needs to be diverted to produce these raw materials. The world is facing a shortage of food supply and hence it becomes difficult to replace food crops. Oils from plants such as jatropha and karanja have also been used as raw materials. These plants can be grown on waste barren land without overloading the agricultural land.

The application of biofuels is still in its nascent stage. But we have to turn towards them in the near future. Till that time, all we can do is save as much petrol and diesel as we can. So the next time you stop at a red signal, make sure you turn off your engine to save every drop of fuel that we have.

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