Fuel crisis: Finding a way out


My brief write up in The Island of Oct. 27 has opened up the discussion on the above and consensus favour a biofuel initiative as an option available within our reach among other things as a suitable liquid fuel for vehicular transport. It is most unfortunate that such a vital topic has been responded to only by a few retired senior scientists, even when it is one of the priority topics having the immediate potential to brake or make Sri Lanka development planning. Upto now I have not seen any responses from the government institutions of concern such as the SSEA,SRI,CPC, M/Sci & tech, Universities, NASTEC , IDB,ITI, CARP, M/Economic Development etc, although country supports a plethora of such organizations. This trend is most shocking when the country is aiming to build a knowledge hub. If the universities had been part and parcel of development planning and made responsible and accountable in such activities, this vacuum would not have arisen.

In response to the question on the net energy in biofuels raised by Dr. U. Pethiyagoda, suffice it to say here that such issues as to the economy of biofuels from field to wheel have been extensively investigated and settled as far back as mid 1990s and, obviously, these should have been taken into account when deciding on the options available to us in the biofuel policy made for Ministry of Science and Technology (which I am not aware) as revealed by Dr. Janaka Ratnasiri.

As regards alcohol tolerance of micro organism and yields of fermentation issues raised by Dr. Pethiyagoda, let me say that these issues have been sorted out by other countries many decades ago and various patents are available including the use of bacteria, instead of fermentation yeasts as well. This is not rocket science and in fact I am pleased to say that SRI then during my tenure as its head in 1990s isolated and adopted one of the best fermentation yeasts for molasses which improved fermentation efficiency here, yields, lag time, cycle and over all process by several folds leading to a nearly Rs 100,000 gain in a single run then. We made so many different isolates then and, in fact, Australian Yeast production industry Meyer & Baker expressed their desire to work with us in the mid 1990s, which we could not pursue due to unsettling politics at the time.

In this regard, may I say that the national sugar sector policy made in 2004, reviewed field to wheel issues, including prime source of energy to run the industry and crop production. Out of all the terrestrial tropical direct non food crops, sugarcane and sugar industry attached distilleries stood as the best option available having a 1: 2.5 net gain in the late 1990s scenario, which now has improved over 1:8 in the mature industries such as in Brazil, so much so that, the world renowned oil giant BP has a huge presence and stake in the Brazilian biofuel production and sales out of cane since 2008.The crops mentioned by Dr. Janaka Ratnasiri, such as maize would not be energy independent unlike sugarcane, but all such tropical sources could contribute to raw materials in a sugarcane based integrated biofuel industry where sugarcane provides the surplus energy requirement.

In this connection let me briefly point out that, cane sugar factories as equipped in the late 1980s on an average will produce for every 100 tonnes of cane ground, 11 tonnes of raw sugar, three tonnes of molasses, three tonnes of filter mud, 0.3 tonnes of furnace ash, 120 tonnes of flue gas at 200 degrees centigrade, five tonnes of surplus bagasse and 1500 kwh of surplus electricity. Now those were the days when petroleum was cheap and energy was not much of a concern. However, the picture has changed dramatically since then and the modern sugarcane factories are custom-designed to achieve maximum energy economy and generation of electrical power using high pressure boilers and combined cycle gasification technology giving large surpluses of energy. It is only the sugarcane factories that have this energy independence and surplus electricity production while producing a large number of useful by products as well which can form the raw material of many other industries. Unfortunately, the sugar refineries now planned in Hambantota port will neither have the energy independence nor the byproducts economy and are generally established in ports where ample supplies of cheap energy is available such as the port of Dubai where the sugar refinery is run by cheap petroleum available there. Sri Lanka lacks foresight while an energy crisis is building up.

Algae would be one of the best biofuel sources for tropical Sri Lanka, where, too, technology is mature and reputed companies are available to establish turn key projects, though Dr. Sivapalan has, in his write-up, paid scant attention to this all important source.

In Brazil, with a growing portfolio of assets, including three operational ethanol mills, BP has been producing biofuels from locally grown sugar cane since 2008. This is what the oil giant BP Biofuels, a significant producer of ethanol in Brazil which has had operations in the country since 2008 says in a write-up titled ‘Producing Biofuels in Brazil- BP biofuels-a growing alternative’: "Sugar cane is the most efficient biofuel feedstock in commercial use today and sugar cane ethanol can deliver greenhouse gas reductions of up to 90% compared to conventional fuels. It can also be used as a feedstock for the next generation of advanced biofuels, such as biobutanol and diesel". This statement coming from a world renowned oil giant such as BP shows their foresight and where the future stakes lie in this sector.

Sri Lanka, which is now having its own highly competitive high yielding and high sugarcane clones suitable for rain-fed dry zone made through over two decades of research efforts of our own breeding programme, should be able to reap the benefits of these advantages by having a focus programme in biofuel production, giving priority to already proven commercial source, the sugarcane having integration with other crops to assure year round raw material, while encouraging algal based technology, too, to go into commercially viable production.

Dr. M. W. N. Dharmawardene

Retired Founder Director, Sri Lanka Sugarcane Research Institute

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