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Global Biofuels Alliance – there is still such a long way to go

The Global Biofuels Alliance is a good and exciting title but the roadmap has several hurdles and it should move beyond conference rooms, says N.S. Venkataraman, adding that in a conflict-ridden world, one has to keep fingers crossed about global cooperation on such worthwhile subjects

The G-20 Meet recently launched the Global Biofuels Alliance with participation of more than 30 countries and several international institutions to facilitate adoption and production of biofuels in a massive way. Formation of Global Biofuels Alliance is justifiably claimed  to be a watershed movement in forging ahead towards clean energy and in overcoming the climate crisis.  It is expected that the Global Biofuels Alliance will support worldwide efforts for research and development to optimise the production process for biofuels and boost the production of biofuels and would also offer capacity-building support.  

Certainly, the objective of Global Biofuels Alliance is laudable and timely. However, it is not certain whether adequate spadework and detailed investigation have been completed to assess the issues and evolve time-bound strategies for achieving the objectives before announcing the alliance. If that were so, then there have been no signs of visible public consultation or official announcements with regard to the issues and strategies. 

While discussing the prospects for biofuels, it would be appropriate to review the progress with regard to other measures initiated so far to overcome the climate crisis. Such review would point to the efforts required and strategies needed to ensure success for the Global Biofuels Alliance.

Incomplete efforts so far 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, but not much beyond that. While some steps have been initiated such as applying restrictions on the use of some chemicals such as hydro fluoro carbon, the effective steps taken so far are few and far between and the basic issues continue to remain unresolved.

The main cause for global warming and the climate crisis is the extensive production and use of fossil fuels based on crude oil and coal and the production of these fossil fuels have not been curtailed in any significant way so far. The countries producing crude oil, natural gas (which causes emission of noxious methane during handling and transportation) and coal have not reduced the production but we only see signs of increased production of fossil fuel  such as coal in India  and China. Countries producing crude oil such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Qatar, US 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 for climate crisis. Green hydrogen is expected to replace fossil fuel as energy source and also as feedstock source to some extent.  However, for production of green hydrogen, renewable energy power from wind, solar and hydro are required.  It appears that even if a green hydrogen economy were to become successful in theory, the world can never produce renewable energy to supply the power required adequately for the 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 being sure whether it would be economically viable to replace the fossil fuel.  Research and development efforts are still on and the ultimate success for a green hydrogen economy now remains as 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 in a massive scale cannot be made available anytime 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 (process of planting trees in areas of land) is yet another positive 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 among trees and shrubs characterised by death of the young shoots which spreads to the larger branches) that would impact biodiversity, carbon storage, and climate change.

Focus on biofuel
After such high euphoria over green hydrogen and other options, now biofuel has gained worldwide attention with the launch of the Global Biofuels Alliance. While this is a good initiative, there are many hurdles along the way and any thought that biofuel would become a total substitute for fossil fuel amounts to wishful thinking currently.  It appears that biofuel can only partly displace fossil fuel if it were to be adequately developed and produced.

Production of ethanol from biomass and use of such ethanol as eco-friendly biofuel has been repeatedly suggested by several sources, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The biofuel process involves 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 has been set up on a pilot-plant scale or semi-commercial scale, the feasibility of massive production of   ethanol based biofuels remains a matter of conjecture. 

A lot of research effort is needed for massive production of ethanol from alternate feedstock.

One obvious option is to grow and use algae crop, 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 crop, not only biofuel but also ethanol and methane (natural gas) can be produced. Until now, algae biofuel has not received the type of global attention that it needs. Hopefully, the Global Biofuels Alliance will make efforts to study the feasibility of algae biofuel option and promote such focused efforts to develop the technology.

(The writer is managing trustee, Nandini Voice for the Deprived. He is a chemical engineer and lives in Chennai.)

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