The hardest part of cellulosic biofuels in India might be collecting the rice straw

Alternative fuels

India recently announced its National Policy on Biofuels, which includes ambitious targets for ethanol and biodiesel produced primarily from non-food and non-feed sources. The policy aspires to promote increased production of cellulosic biofuel and other alternative fuels produced from sustainable feedstocks, something no other country has managed to do so far. The United States leads the world in cellulosic biofuel production and these fuels are still a drop in the biofuel bucket. Can India make it happen?

Sometimes the main challenge for cellulosic biofuel production is technological, but other times the barriers to success are much more mundane. Some cellulosic biofuel industry representatives have divulged that it can take longer to set up cellulosic feedstock supply contracts with farmers than to build the biofuel facilities. Feedstock supply may be a major problem for India in particular.

Agricultural residues, including wheat and rice straw, are a featured feedstock in the National Policy on Biofuels, and the state government of Punjab is supporting the construction of a cellulosic ethanol plant using rice straw. Rice straw is a particularly attractive biofuel feedstock in northern provinces including Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, because its high silica content and makes for poor livestock fodder.

Even though there isn’t high competition for rice straw due to its abundance, it may be difficult for biofuel facilities to actually collect it. The presence of rice straw on a field makes it difficult to sow the next crop, wheat, so farmers burn rice straw simply as a way to quickly get rid of it. There is a tight 15-20 day time window between rice harvest and wheat sowing in Punjab, so there isn’t enough time to do much else. The manual labor needed to collect the rice straw is sometimes unavailable at this busy harvest time and when workers can be found, the cost of straw collection is high. Machinery to mechanically harvest rice straw is expensive to rent, and can also be impractical to use on the small rice fields that are common in northern India.

The solution to these problems is probably higher straw purchase prices, although this will make cellulosic biofuel even more expensive. Higher straw prices would provide incentives to the farmers to collect the straw and would allow them to pay a higher wage to attract the needed labor during the short rice harvest time window.

This isn’t to say that India won’t succeed in its ambitions for cellulosic biofuel. With strong policy implementation, it may be the first country to do so. It might just take a little more effort in areas that aren’t quite as simple as they first appear to be.

rice straw being burned