Special Interviews
Aug.15, 2022
India is Responding to Environmental Problems with Biofuels and Biohydrogen
Dr Vibha Dhawan, Director General, TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute), India
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India is Responding to Environmental Problems with Biofuels and Biohydrogen

The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) is an India- based independent, multi-dimensional research organization with capabilities in technology development, implementation, and policy research. It works in the energy, environment, climate change and sustainability space, and is also engaged in extensive research and development in areas of sustainable agriculture, advanced biofuels and nano-biotechnology. It has harnessed the power of bioenergy to produce hydrogen, and is working to make agriculture more environmentally friendly through its research on fertilizers. In addition, it is also working on energy issues such as solar energy and hydrogen, and is focused on research into eco-friendly forms of energy for the future such as biofuels and biohydrogen. We asked Dr Vibha Dhawan, Director General of TERI, about TERI’s activities in RD20.

Dr Vibha Dhawan,
Director General, TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute), India

In previous RD20s, TERI has told us that it has been engaged in research and development of clean energy technologies. The institute covers the entire value chain, from laboratory-level experiments and technological development at the early stages of technology to the transition to pilot and mass production of clean energy. In addition to energy management and conservation in industry and buildings, especially the design of green buildings, TERI is also working on solar energy, wind power generation, battery technology, power transmission grids, and biofuels.

Focus on biofuels

With regard to biofuels, TERI focuses on laboratory-level R&D and mass production technologies. Biofuels are fuels made by fermentation, oil extraction, and pyrolysis, using renewable organic resources (biomass) as the raw material. They can be used in gaseous or liquid form. Bioethanol can be mixed with gasoline for gasoline vehicles, and biodiesel can be mixed with diesel for diesel vehicles. Biofuels include cultivated crops based on raw materials such as sugarcane and corn, and waste based on raw materials such as raw garbage, sewage sludge, and livestock manure. There are also methods to refine waste oils such as edible oils used for deep frying in homes.

TERI has also been deeply involved in research to produce biodiesel, bioethanol, biohydrogen, and bio-methane using algae. Although biofuels emit CO2 (carbon dioxide) during combustion, they absorb CO2 during the growth phase of the raw crops, so they are considered to be net zero, or carbon neutral, in terms of CO2 emission and absorption. Therefore, the production of biofuels contributes to attaining a sustainable society. Clean water is also needed to make biofuels.

Development into biohydrogen

In terms of production of hydrogen, TERI has developed a process for producing biohydrogen from feedstock crops and secondary crops (microorganisms, microalgae). Since there are many organic substances in the world, TERI believes that it can increase the productivity of biohydrogen.

Biohydrogen can be made from many microorganisms or biomass/liquid biomass derived from various types of grain residues as the raw material. Basically, any organic molecule consists of hydrocarbon (CHO), and H can be removed from biomass consisting of CHO. Dr Dhawan’s group has found extremely efficient strains, and Dr Dhawan states that biomass can be reduced to hydrogen.

 TERI is also studying applications for hydrogen. For example, it is investigating the potential of hydrogen as a reducing agent in steel mills as a decarbonization technology. However, there are financial challenges and it is not an easy task.

The key is international cooperation

There are many technologies to solve clean energy problems, but there are also technical disparities between countries. “Nevertheless, we live on the same planet. And we have the same problems. For example, climate change is happening everywhere on the planet. That is why we need to share technology,” says Dr Dhawan.

In terms of international cooperation on a global scale, Dr Dhawan says there are two challenges. One is technology, but technology can be used to address common problems. The second problem, however, is financial. It is the disparity between the rich countries and the less fortunate countries. It is important for everyone to know about technology, and we must consider how we can transfer technology to developing countries.

Dr Dhawan suggests a way to transfer hydrogen technology. “Hydrogen-powered buses are already running in many countries. Hydrogen is also beginning to be used in industry. Bringing this hydrogen to countries where it has not yet been installed is not as simple as ‘plug-and-play.’ Therefore, battery-powered buses should be introduced from large foreign companies, such as Hitachi and Siemens, and they should be improved locally to suit local conditions rather than using them as they are.” This way, local people should be taught how to use the technology, enabling it to take root in the country.

Sharing the challenges of hydrogen

However, there are many problems with hydrogen, including technology for storage, transportation, and safety. The industry should work together to identify these issues and find risks and usage issues. Safety is a critical issue because if a hydrogen-powered vehicle malfunctions, the plant explodes, or a major accident occurs, it could cause major damage on a global scale.

In addition, if electrolysis of water is used to produce hydrogen, what is the cost of balancing it? It is also important to develop technologies to reduce costs.

It is imperative to provide answers to these problems and share information with everyone. We should all discuss safety together. Specialized technology will also be needed for the purpose.

What topics will you present at RD20 this year?

“I’m always on the lookout for emerging technologies because they have a lot of potential. Standards will be needed. For example, in the field of hydrogen production technology, I would like to have discussions with various national institutions, discuss hydrogen with Michio Kondo from AIST, and collaborate on biohydrogen related research.”

Biohydrogen means producing hydrogen based on biological laws. Value-added LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) analysis can serve as a guide for its production since it is a good way to identify which emerging technologies are not yet viable.

Even for EVs (electric vehicles), although the finished vehicles do not emit CO2, the energy consumed in producing EVs in factories causes CO2 emissions. In addition, CO2 is emitted when EVs are charged if the electricity comes from fossil fuels such as in the case of thermal power. That’s why EVs also need LCA analysis.

Of course, LCA analysis is also required for biofuels. Biohydrogen is the second or third generation of biofuels, and it is important to evaluate how biogas, biomass, and biotechnology should be handled.

An energy source that utilizes agricultural residues

These days, I often talk about the idea of using biomass in decentralized power generation at the village-level, rather than at centralized power generation, given the losses and costs of transmission lines. Using biomass derived from agricultural residue can reduce the problems of garbage and pollution, particularly in India.

If agricultural residue is used to generate CNG (Compressed Natural Gas: liquefied natural gas in Japan), village-scale energy will be effective. In the field of mobility, CNG is already widely used in passenger cars, and it can be compressed to 1% of its volume as a gas at 200-250 bar (1 bar is about 1 atmosphere).

CNG is based on ethanol, but many agricultural residue can be found in densely populated countries such as India and Japan. People will become more accustomed to biogas as biogas plants are built. Although there are still many problems in making biogas widely available, it can be produced by the same process as food. CNG is a green technology and is one possible option. We will work with industry, especially the steel industry and the steelmaking industry, to draw up a “Zero Roadmap” for biofuels. At this year’s RD20, I hope to focus on biofuels together with these industries.

Kenji Tsuda, Editor in Chief, Semiconductor portal