Think Diesel, and the image that comes to mind is unlikely to be a Petri dish full of green algae. But show the seaweed to M.P. Singh, senior research manager, at Indian Oil’s biotechnology lab in Faridabad, Haryana, and he’ll tell you if it is a potential source of biodiesel. Singh’s mission is to find the technology and the right algae that will be a viable source of biodiesel.

For some years now, biofuels have been seen as an environmentally sound way of reducing dependence on fast depleting fossil fuels. The problem with biofuels so far has been that growing the crops needed to make fuel (corn, jatropha, karanjia shrubs) has meant reducing farmland used to grow food. Enter algae.

The seaweed can be cultivated in saline or waste water; oil is extracted from the plants, after which the residue can be used as animal feed or fertiliser. The problem is to make the oil extraction and subsequent processing (to convert it into diesel) commercially viable. That’s what Singh and his team, as well as scientists in companies across the world, are working on now.

First, they need to create the perfect algae, a variety that reproduces faster, absorbs more carbon dioxide and traps more sunlight. These traits increase the lipid content in algae and hence yield more biofuel. But, as Singh points out, nature doesn’t create the perfect biofuel algae. “It has to be made in a lab. We are still working on it.”

Indian Oil’s R&D centre is at the forefront of the government’s efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. The other state owned oil companies too have their own skunk-works, but Indian Oil’s is the most advanced. To prove it’s serious, last December the government mandated oil companies to mix 5% ethanol with petrol to reduce crude imports. There’s a shortage of ethanol and Indian Oil’s own attempts at ethanol production from agricultural waste hasn’t worked on a large scale.

“Our pilot plants can convert any agricultural waste into ethanol, but the collection and transportation of waste on a large scale hasn’t been easy,” says Ravi Prakash Gupta, senior research manager at Indian Oil’s Bio-Energy Research Centre.

The process of converting waste into ethanol was developed with technological support from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S. Earlier experiments of producing biodiesel from jatropha and karanjia shrubs failed. “There isn’t enough land to grow them,’’ says R.N. Malhotra, director and a veteran at Indian Oil’s R&D centre.

The Indian Oil R&D centre’s roadmap is abundantly clear: Its more than 360 engineers and scientists, who have filed for 430 patents and been awarded 254, have to find low-cost fuels and set up clean power plants. There is capital expenditure of Rs 955 crore earmarked till 2017 for this.

Indian Oil’s hydrogen compressed natural gas plant
Indian Oil’s hydrogen compressed natural gas plant

Apart from algal fuel, the scientists are working on ways of extracting oil from shale rock. A few hundred metres away, in the alternative energy and technology development lab, Rajesh M. Badhe, senior research manager, is working on a pilot project to extract the 5% to 7% oil trapped in shale rock, which is abundant in coal mines in the North East.

“We didn’t have the technology to extract oil from shale earlier,” says Badhe. The oil is extracted through destructive distillation at 500°C in the presence of gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen. It’s a first in India.

Badhe’s team has also set up a pilot plant which uses coal, biomass, or petroleum coke to generate synthetic gas that can produce hydrogen and liquid fuels (‘coal to liquid technology’).

The process uses less oxygen, and does not produce the polluting oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, unlike conventional biomass processes.

Indian Oil’s R&D centre is collaborating with Larsen & Toubro, Defence Research and Development Organisation, and Thermax, to scale up this pilot project. Patents for the technology and the process been filed.

Malhotra believes that the key to green fuels also lies in developing hydrogen fuel cells, often seen as the holy grail in alternate fuels. “Hydrogen is available in plenty [in water, biomass] and is more energy efficient than other fuels,’’ he says.

His centre has tied up with the Banaras Hindu University, BHEL, and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy for extracting hydrogen from water through a photocatalytic process of splitting molecules.

Malhotra also wants to scale up the R&D centre’s hydrogen-compressed natural gas project. Compressed natural gas is used in public transport and “mixing up to 18% hydrogen reduces emissions. What’s more, it doesn’t need any changes in the engine,” says Badhe. Many Indian companies are interested in buying the mixing technology his team has developed.

There is also a new focus on nanotechnology, which is already being used in fuel and lubricant formulations. Malhotra believes that further research in this will strongly influence the energy sector.