India’s green push for second-generation bioethanol

Could diversify feedstock basket, help secure long-term sustainability with improved economics 

By Rahul Jain
Published: Friday 14 October 2022
Second-generation (2G) bioethanol production technology can process agricultural waste like rice straw and wheat straw. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ethanol-blended petrol is regarded as one of the most acceptable alternative fuel blends for transportation; however, the use of molasses and broken grains for its production raises the question of food vs fuel. Second-generation (2G) bioethanol could help to secure long-term sustainability with improved economics for the Indian biofuel market.  

Union Minister of State (Ministry of Science and Technology & Earth Sciences) Jitendra Singh September 23, 2022, announced the launch of the “Innovation Roadmap of the Mission Integrated Biorefineries”.

The launch was announced at Global Clean Energy Action Forum 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the United States.

Read more: Was ethanol the reason for the ban on broken rice exports

“The mission aims at greater international collaboration and the need for increased financing for energy research, development, and demonstration during the next five years through public-private investment,” the minister said at the launch. 

The biorefineries aim to produce ethanol. Blended petrol with 20 per cent ethanol is also known as E20. 

India aims to sell only E20 blended petrol from 2025. In 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a report, Roadmap for Ethanol Blending in India by 2025, to set a plan for the phase-wise rollout of E20 in the country. 

About 1,016 crore litres of ethanol will be required to achieve 20 per cent blending by 2025-26, as per the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas estimation. Sugarcane-derived molasses and broken or surplus grains like rice and maise are primarily used to generate ethanol.  

Presently, these two feedstocks can generate about 684 crore litres/year of ethanol collectively, which is proposed to be expanded to 1,500 crore litres by 2025.

This, in turn, will necessitate the production of about 165 lakh metric tonnes of grains and 60 lakh metric tonnes of sugar in the year 2025 for ethanol utilisation. Besides the food versus fuel debate, the move will also significantly increase the water footprint. 

Sustainable options

Do we have any other sustainable options for producing ethanol? Yes, agricultural or lignocellulosic waste. 

India is the second-largest producer of agricultural waste in the world after China and generates about 500 million tonnes of agricultural waste per year, of which more than half is either discarded or burned. 

Read more: Lignin from agro waste helps make useful nanocomposites

Inappropriate management of this agricultural waste generates greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, endangering both people and the environment.

Second-generation (2G) bioethanol production technology has the potential to tap this agricultural waste and convert it into ethanol. 

Twelve commercial plants and ten demonstration plants of 2G biorefineries (using agricultural waste as substrate) have already been proposed to be built under the Pradhan Mantri JI-VAN (Jaiv Indhan-Vatavaran Anukool Fasal Awashesh Nivaran) Yojana in regions with adequate biomass supply. 

The scheme has sanctioned financial support of Rs 1,969.50 crores to commercialise this 2G bioethanol technology. 

On World Biofuel Day August 10, Asia’s first 2G ethanol biorefinery, built by a central public sector undertaking Indian Oil Corporation Ltd, was unveiled by Modi in Panipat, Haryana. 

This 2G ethanol biorefinery is spread around 35 acres and can process two lakh tonnes of agricultural waste each year to produce approximately three crore litres of ethanol.

Furthermore, it will reduce the pollution caused by stubble burning and remove around 320,000 MT of CO2 yearly, a figure comparable to removing nearly 63,000 cars from the road. By itself, this 2G biorefinery will prevent a yearly expenditure of Rs 55 to Rs 60 crore on imported oil.

2G technology can process a variety of agricultural waste — rice straw, wheat straw, cotton stalk, corn cobs and corn stover. The commissioned plants can run throughout the year,” Shishir Joshipura, chief executive and managing director, Praj Industries, told Down To Earth.

Praj Industries is a technology licensor and EPCM partner for the Panipat project. The company is installing similar projects for central public sector undertaking Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd at Bargarh, Orissa and oil and gas refining company Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd at Bhatinda, Punjab. 

Read more: India's ethanol roadmap : The targets and challenges

Both projects have a capacity of 100 kilolitres per day of bioethanol production, Joshipura claimed. 

A biorefinery plant in Assam aims to produce bioethanol from bamboo. It is worth Rs 1,750 crore has been set up by public-sector oil company Numaligarh Refinery Ltd to meet and channelise ethanol blending targets in the north-eastern part of India. 

More than 65 per cent of the nation’s bamboo is cultivated in eight northeastern states. Under this project, NRL will process and consume about 5-lakh metric tonnes of bamboo annually.

Assam Biorefinery Pvt Ltd, a joint venture firm, has been established to accomplish this project, along with electric services company Fortum and biorefining company Chempolis from Finland. 

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