The Complex Path to Biofuel Sustainability

By Amigos IAS

Why is it in the news?

  • Biofuels face challenges despite the growing adoption of electric vehicles (EVs).
  • Transition to EVs requires replacing existing internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles and infrastructure, which is a capital-intensive process.

Challenges in India

  • In India, biofuels primarily refer to first-generation (1G) ethanol, sourced from food crops.
    • The policy aims to achieve 20% ethanol blending with petrol (E20) by 2025-26, relying on 1G ethanol from sugarcane and foodgrains.
  • Second-generation (2G) ethanol, made from crop waste, faces challenges related to feedstock supply and scaling up.
  • Groundwater depletion and food security concerns arise from diverting surplus produce towards energy production.
  • Agriculture is a significant source of direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making it counterproductive to increase emissions for fuel production.
Promoting Sustainable Biofuels
  • Sustainable biofuels are produced from crop residues and waste with low water and GHG footprints.
    • The Global Biofuels Alliance aims to promote sustainable biofuels and support India’s climate action.
  • To achieve global net-zero emissions by 2050, sustainable biofuel production must triple by 2030.
  • Decentralized 2G ethanol production is a potential sustainable solution but presents challenges in balancing economies of scale with biomass collection and transport.
  • Biomass should be prioritized for sectors with limited low-carbon alternatives like long-haul aviation and road freight.
  • The Global Biofuels Alliance can drive innovation in efficient biomass supply chains and smaller-scale decentralized biofuel production.
  • Any hydrocarbon fuels produced from organic matter in a short period of time is a biofuel.
  • Types: Solid (e.g., wood, dried plants, manure), Liquid (e.g., bioethanol, biodiesel), Gaseous (e.g., biogas)
  • Used as alternatives or supplements to diesel, petrol, and other fossil fuels.
  • Utilized in transportation, stationary, portable applications, heat, and electricity generation.
  • Motivated by rising oil prices, greenhouse gas emissions, and agricultural crop-based fuel production.

Different Categories of Biofuels

First Generation Biofuels:

  • Made from food sources (sugar, starch, vegetable oil, animal fats).
  • Examples: Bio-alcohols, Bio-diesel, Vegetable oil, Bio-ethers, Biogas.
  • Easy conversion but competes with food production, causing price increases.


Second Generation Biofuels:

  • Produced from non-food crops or inedible portions of food crops (e.g., stems, husks, wood chips).
  • Examples: Cellulose ethanol, Biodiesel.
  • Complex production processes, lower impact on food economy, lower greenhouse gas emissions.


Third Generation Biofuels:

  • Derived from micro-organisms like algae.
  • Example: Butanol.
  • Grown on land and water unsuitable for food production, reducing water strain.
  • Fertilizer use may lead to environmental pollution.


Fourth Generation Biofuels:

  • Crops genetically engineered to absorb high carbon levels.
  • Grown, harvested, and converted into fuel using second-generation techniques.
  • Carbon capture and geo-sequestration used (carbon storage in depleted oil/gas fields or coal seams).
  • Considered carbon-negative as they remove carbon from the environment.


Global Biofuel Alliance

·        India-led initiative.

·        Aims to develop an alliance involving Governments, International organizations, and Industry to promote biofuel adoption.

·        Comprises 19 countries and 12 international organizations.

·        Founding members: India, Brazil, and the US.

·        Focuses on enhancing the use of sustainable biofuels, particularly in the transportation sector.

·        India, the US, and Brazil collectively account for 85 percent of global ethanol production.

·        US holds the largest share at 55 percent, followed by Brazil at 27 percent, and India at 3 percent.

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