Is the Time Ripe for Biodiesel in India?


Author – Levine Lawrence

BiofuelsThe current fuel crisis resurrects an old debate about alternatives for imported petro-diesel, which has burdened our country with a huge current account deficit. long with the currency crisis, the inflation of food prices has been in the spotlight as well. Hidden behind the price rise among food commodities is the steady increase in diesel prices.

Various alternatives such as ethanol, electric fuel cells, hydrogen have been tried out. However, all these alternative fuels require setting up a capital-intensive infrastructure, which needs a critical mass of buyers before they can be economically feasible. Among these, Biodiesel produced from oilseeds is now considered a good alternative, since it 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 the 1900s, the engine’s inventor Rudolf Diesel himself had suggested that the diesel engine can be fed with any 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’, it is produced through a ‘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 is 80% petro-diesel and 20% SVO (B20 blend) or 90:10 ratio (B10 blend).

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 India. 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 in India gained prominence and the market for biofuels picked up, the controversial “food versus fuel” debate grabbed the media spotlight. Apprehensions were raised about food crops being diverted from food markets to energy markets to produce biofuels, leading to a 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 of Biodiesel in India

The critical question that biodiesel proponents need to answer is whether it is economically feasible in India. Pune-based Applied Environmental Research Foundation (AERF) is a voluntary organization 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 fuelwood and fodder, AERF has set up oil-seed collection and expeller centers in remote villages. These centers help in supplying Biodiesel to run diesel gensets and producing oil cakes for fertilizer 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 in India

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 villages and run their diesel generators 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 liter compared favorably with petro-diesel at INR60 per liter (Karnataka & 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 potential and needs huge investments and time to make it truly commercial. While 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 Hassan Biofuel Park, funded by the Karnataka State Biofuel Development Board says, “collection of oilseeds from trees that are spread across the countryside is a labor-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 liter is unsustainable as compared to the actual production cost of INR36 per liter for jatropha oil, he opines.

Prof. Balakrishna suggests an ingenious 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 be done for rural areas where manual plucking of seeds and oil extraction can be at a low cost through cheap labor.

Success stories

Biodiesel – oilseed extraction
Biodiesel – oilseed extraction

Despite the drawbacks, there have been a few case studies of the successful utilization 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 liters of Biodiesel mixed with regular fuel. Now we buy fuel enough for running 2,000 buses”.

Hyderabad-based Gaiatech Fuels has been supplying approximately 1.6 million liters 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 kilometers daily. The NMMT first started using biodiesel supplied by Gaiatech on a trial basis in September 2008. Gaiatech supplies 3 million liters of Biodiesel to KSRTC as well. Across the globe, there have been many instances of successful implementation, but most of them utilize palm oil or rapeseed oil. With crude oil prices hovering around $100 per barrel, proponents of Biodiesel in India still hope there is a fair chance for this humble oil to grab its rightful place in the mainstream.

First published on The Alternative

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. […]


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