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India’s fuel import bill makes sense for it to develop biofuel technology: Expert

Nov 10, 2012

Himadri B Pakrasi, Director, International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES), is director of two prestigious large-scale, multi-institutional, Systems Biology projects in the Washington University. OneWorld’s Ashok Kumar spoke to him on the role of biofuels and how these make economic sense for developing countries like India.

OneWorld South Asia: How do you think biofuel production is in the interest of developing countries like India?

Himadri B Pakrasi: One aspect of biofuel production that people often do not think about is the business of distributive energy sources. When you think about the coal-fired power plant, it means huge infrastructure for huge amount of power production, whereas biofuel is a farmer’s way of producing fuel for a small number of people.

Biofuel has to do with the inventory of all the biological capacities that different organisms have. India can contribute in a big way if it looks into its own biodiversity. For example, the United States or Europe may be using one kind of algae or five kinds of algae, but there may be a sixth kind of alga or hundred different kinds of algae that are present in India, and have a better ability to make biofuels.

OWSA: How do biofuels make economic sense for the poor or the developing countries of the world?

Pakrasi: We have been using biofuels for a long time now. In the United States 10 per cent of the gasoline we use is ethanol. That has been going for a long time.

Developing countries do not have adequate conventional energy resources like oil and natural gas. So much more money is being spent on importing fuel. For such countries, biofuels are of much more significance.

In a place like India, there is so much money spent on importing oil that it makes sense to develop biofuel technologies.  And, as soon as biofuel becomes less expensive than petroleum, people will use biofuels.

Developing countries should do more to make biofuels accessible. The countries will go bankrupt paying for the fuels like oil and gas. So, one should look for alternatives like the biofuels.

OWSA: What are the merits of biofuels over the conventional sources of energy?

Pakrasi: Production of biofuels does not need large-scale production facilities. One good thing about biofuel production is that scale up and scale down can be done really easily. It is simply agriculture with plants or agriculture with algae.

There is so much need for energy in the future that not just one kind of energy has the potential to fulfill the energy requirements of mankind.  Therefore, we need all kinds of energy including solar energy, wind energy and thermal energy.

OWSA: With most of the land devoted to food production, how can poor countries spare this resource for the production of biofuels?

Pakrasi: You have crops, of which, part of them is used as food. So there is cellulosic material that is not used for food, which can be used for fuel. Also, marginal lands and algae can be tapped for producing biofuels. Algae is one of the ways which can also help the developing countries to address the challenge of poverty. From the perspective of the developing countries where land is scarce, the good thing about algae is it does not use land.

Algae can be grown without lack of expensive inputs, locally available and can be grown in small scale as well as large scale, but as far as the extraction of oil is concerned new technologies have to be developed.

Energy solutions will not come from one place. Algae is still not ready to be deployed on a large scale. Engineered algae are required to meet the demands for making biofuels in future.

OWSA: How do you look at the state of research and development for biofuels in India?

Pakrasi: Research and development in the field of biofuels has just started in India.  But one has to form the right kind of collaborative team and then people should work together.  This requires many different kinds of expertise.
One needs biologists, chemists and very good computational scientists all working together to work on synthetic biology.

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