Is the Time Ripe for Biodiesel?


Author – Levine L

BiofuelsThe Indian rupee’s recent fall against the US dollar has been phenomenal. Along with the currency crisis, the inflation of food prices has been on the spotlight as well. Hidden behind the price rise among food commodities is the steady increase in diesel price. Since 2012, the government has made an effort to reduce subsidies and decontrol diesel prices by increasing it by 50 paisa per litre every month. Despite that, losses on diesel for state-owned oil companies are hovering around INR11 per litre. So, the government is now under pressure to drastically increase the diesel price by INR2-3 per litre.

The current fuel crisis resurrects an old debate about alternatives for imported petro-diesel, which has burdened our country with a huge current account deficit. Various alternatives such as ethanol, electric fuel cells, hydrogen have been tried out. However, all these fuels require setting up a capital intensive infrastructure, which needs a critical mass of buyers before they can be economically feasible. However, Biodiesel produced from oilseeds is considered a good alternative, which is not only produced locally but is cost effective as well.

Background about Biodiesel

Biodiesel is an innovative biofuel made from vegetable oil that can be used for standard diesel engines without any alteration. Way back in 1900s, the engine’s inventor Rudolf Diesel had suggested that the diesel engine can be fed with vegetable oils. However, abundant availability of petroleum overshadowed the utility of vegetable oils over time. Now that the world is facing high crude oil prices, there is a concentrated effort to identify alternative fuels. So the focus is back on Biodiesel.

There are two types of oil-based biofuels, whose names are interchangeably used, though they are technically different –

  • Biodiesel – technically called ‘esterified vegetable oil’, is produced through the ‘Transesterification’ process, which separates the thick viscous ‘glycerol’ and the thin fuel ‘methyl ester’. Biodiesel produced through this process is costlier than petro-diesel due to a chemical process that involves other ingredients such as methanol. This fuel can be directly used in a diesel engine without any alteration to the machine.
  • Straight vegetable oil (SVO) – is the unrefined and non-processed oil directly extracted from oil seeds. SVO produced by oil expellers across the country is cheap, whose market price depends on the oilseed and transportation costs. However, this fuel cannot be used directly; it needs to be blended in minor quantities with petro-diesel. The typical mixing ratio would be 80% petro-diesel and 20% SVO (B20 blend) or 90:10 ratio (B10 blend).
Variety of vegetable oils
Variety of vegetable oils

SVO is mainly extracted from non-edible oil trees such as Neem, Mahua [Madhuca longifolia], Karanja [Pongamia pinnata], Jatropha [Jatropha curcas], Simarouba [Simarouba glauca], etc., which grow abundantly across the countryside. There are about 20 other plant species like palm, rapeseed, sunflower, soya whose edible oil seeds also yield acceptable Biodiesel.

Food vs. Fuel Debate

Just when the discovery of Biodiesel gained prominence and the market for biofuels picked up in India, the controversial “food versus fuel” debate erupted into media spotlight. Apprehensions were raised about food crops being diverted from food markets to energy markets to produce biofuels, leading to massive hike in food prices. Critics argued that investments in biofuels will decrease food security in developing nations such as India, where there are large masses of people who cannot afford to buy food at current prices. Edible vegetable oils such as palm oil and soya are two of the most common feedstocks for biofuel production around the world. Further, India’s demand for vegetable oil far outstrips its supply. However, one crucial factor that got lost amidst this debate: non-edible oils could be used instead to produce biodiesel!

Table 1: Technical comparison of Biodiesel and Petro-diesel

Engine modificationNo changeNo change in blends
Safety of storageRisky since it is inflammableSafe since high flash point
Combustion point (degree Celsius)55 Degree Centigrade192 Degree Centigrade
Engine maintenanceLubricant neededSelf-lubricant
Exhaust gasesCO2 + CO + SO2 + NO2CO2 + NO2
Kinematic viscosity (CentiStokes)4.8 cSt2.0-8.0 cSt
Calorific value (energy in joules)48.1MJ/kg38.86MJ/kg
Fuel price (4Q 2013)Rs.60.75/ltrRs.48.00/ltr

Source: Tree Oils India | Various sources

Economic Feasibility

The critical question that biodiesel proponents need to answer is whether it is economically feasible. Pune-based Applied Environmental Research Foundation (AERF) is a voluntary organisation that has been earnestly working on biodiversity and forest conservation. Jayant Sarnaik, Deputy Director, AERF spoke to me in detail about the production process. To prevent farmers from cutting trees for fuel wood and fodder, AERF has set up oil seed collection and expeller centres in remote villages. These centres help in supplying Biodiesel to run diesel gensets and producing oil cakes for fertiliser as well. Since Biodiesel is a costlier fuel, we will confine ourselves to the feasibility of straight vegetable oil (SVO).

The main costs involved in SVO are in seed collection, oil extraction and transportation. When easily available seeds of Mahua or Pongamia are collected, the production cost structure is as follows:

Table 2: Production cost of Biodiesel

Processing CostUnitPongamiaMahua
Seed collectionRs. per kg1512
4 kg seeds produce 1 kg oilRs. per kg6048
Oil expeller running costRs. per kg55
Byproduct – oil cakeRs. per kg-16-8
Packing and storageRs. per kg33
Total costRs. per kg5248

Source: Estimates from Biofuel Park & Applied Environmental Research Foundation

Jayant Sarnaik says, “This fuel is nature’s gift for an oil starved India. Even farmers can make oil in their village and run their diesel gensets or tractors without the need to visit cities for fuel. So not only we can ensure energy security for our country, but also self-reliance for remote villages”. The current price of Biodiesel at INR48 per litre compared favourably to diesel at INR60 per litre (Maharashtra).


Biodiesel – Jatropha seeds : source - Biodiesel – Jatropha seeds
Biodiesel – Jatropha seeds : source – Ton Rulkens

Sreenivas Ghatty of Tree Oils India feels that a lot of things went wrong in the initial days. He says, “There was an overemphasis on commercial cultivation of Jatropha, instead of looking at indigenous oil trees like Pongamia. Jatropha is not a panacea for biodiesel feedstock. However, Jatropha has a potential and needs huge investments and time to make it truly commercial. While the commercial cultivation is not a success so far, perhaps we should take a look at the cultivation practices rather than blaming the plant. We are yet to fully understand the pests and diseases that affect this plant and the way to treat them.”

Prof. Balakrishna Gowda, project coordinator for the Biofuel Park, funded by the Karnataka State Biofuel Development Board, said “the collection of oil seeds from trees that are spread across the countryside is a labour intensive process. Finding villagers who are willing to collect them is a tough task.” Moreover, the support price set by the National Biodiesel Policy at INR26.5 per litre is unsustainable as compared the actual production cost of INR36 per litre for jatropha oil.

Prof. Balakrishna suggests a solution of producing a range of seed feedstock of pongamia, jatropha, simarouba, mahua and castor oil seeds, which will be ideal for a year round production of biodiesel. However, this can only done for rural areas where manual plucking of seeds and oil extraction can be at a low cost through cheap labour.

Success stories

Biodiesel – oilseed extraction
Biodiesel – oilseed extraction

Despite the drawbacks, there have been a few case studies of successful utilisation of Biodiesel. For instance, since 2005, the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) has been intermittently using B20 blend for its buses running across Karnataka. Environmental Officer Ananda Rao P S said, “It began as an experiment to use 10% blend of Biodiesel extracted from Pongamia oil, which was supported by scientists from the Indian Institute of Science. Soon, KSRTC Doddaballapur unit began utilizing nearly 8,000 litres of Biodiesel mixed with regular fuel. Now we buy fuel enough for running 2000 buses”.

Hyderabad-based Gaiatech Fuels has been supplying approximately 1.6 million litres of Biodiesel to the Navi Mumbai Municipal Transport system (NMMT) since 2009. Mike Stiller, director for Gaiatech supplies biodiesel of B20 blend used by the NMMT’s 261 buses, which travel 65,000 kilometres daily. The NMMT first started using biodiesel supplied by Gaiatech on a trial basis in September 2008. Gaiatech supplies 3 million litres of Biodiesel to KSRTC as well. Across the globe, there have been many instance of successful implementation, but most of them utilise palm oil or rapeseed oil. With crude oil prices hovering around $100 per barrel, proponents of Biodiesel still hope there is fair chance for this humble oil to grab its rightful place in the mainstream.

First published on The Alternative

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Levine Lawrence
Rooftop organic farmer, eager eco enthusiast, sustainable economist wandering on a middle path to find world peace amidst global chaos!


  1. […] Biodiesel is back in the news again with the country’s first bus being launched that runs on 100% biodiesel. Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) has introduced its ‘biobus’ on the Bengaluru-Chennai route, which operates only on fuel obtained from plant-based non-edible oils. […]