Bio-Fuel: Explained

Bio-Fuel: Explained

Context: The use of food crops to generate bio-fuels can put burden on the resources of India, which demands for change in the definition of bio-fuels.

Biofuels are alternative fuels produced from biomass and used for transportation. 

There are two major biofuel sectors: 

  • Bio-gasoline from sugar-based bioethanol.
  • Biodiesel from vegetable oils or fatty acid methyl esters (FAME).  
Biomass to liquified

Need for Alternative Fuel Options 

Global transportation sector is facing three major challenges, namely 

  • Depletion of fossil fuels.
  • Volatility in crude oil prices.
  • Stringent environmental regulations. 

Alternative fuels specific to geographies can address these issues. Ethanol is considered to be one of most suitable alternative blending, transportation fuel due to its better fuel quality (ethanol has a higher octane number) and environmental benefits.

Defnition of Biofule and Global Regulation 

Since 2008, European regulations (such as the RED II directive) while differntiating provide for two kinds of biofuels:

  • Conventional biofuels: First generation biofuels from agricultural raw materials that can threaten food security or have a negative impact on land use changes
  • Advanced biofuels:
    • Second Generartion: These fuels are derived from non-edible vegetal resources.
    • Third Generartion: These fuels are derived from micro-organisms such as algae or yeasts.
Biofuel Feedstocks

Biofuel consumption mainly depends on legal constraints on blending and on the fuel demand trends. They were mainly used in road transport in 2020, but new applications in the maritime and air sector are being developed. 


According to the International Energy Agency, to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 globally, sustainable biofuel production needs to triple by 2030 to fuel modes that have few other mitigation options.

Biofuels vs. Electric Vehicles (EVs)

Transitioning to EVs requires replacing existing internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles and infrastructure, which is capital-intensive and can have environmental concerns related to the mining of critical minerals for batteries.

Case of India  

  • High Import Dependence: India’s import dependence on crude oil and products stood at an all-time high of 87.3% in FY2023, and 25.8% of the country’s import bill was spent on it. 
  • High Demand of Crude and its Product: India has the third-largest crude and product demand in the world with significant room for consumption growth. 
  • Demand of Transportation Sector for Petrol  
    • Nearly 60 per cent of our petrol demand comes from two-wheelers, which cater to the mobility needs of citizens across the economic spectrum.  
    • The remaining 40 per cent demand is from four-wheelers and this share is likely to increase. 
  • Government Programme: India launched its ethanol blending programme in 2003 and in 2022, India’s blending programme achieved the significant milestone of 10 per cent ethanol blending in petrol. 
  • Ethanol Supply:  
    • Ethanol producers supplied nearly 430 crore liters of ethanol in 2022. 
    • Much of India’s supply of ethanol for the blending programme comes from first-generation production using food crops, mostly sugarcane (84 per cent) and grain (16 per cent). 
  • Prospect of Second-generation (2G) technologies 
    • Investments in second-generation (2G) technologies for ethanol production have been slow. 
    • Indian Oil’s state-of-the-art facility will only produce 3 crore liters of 2G ethanol.  
    • There are 12 such facilities in various stages of planning and construction. 
  • International Energy Agency suggested that in the last decade, up to 20% of our total primary energy supply was met by biomass, and a large portion of it was used by households. 

Biofuel Targets of India 

  • The government aims to achieve a 20% ethanol blending with petrol (E20) by 2025-26.
  • In India, biofuels are primarily associated with first-generation (1G) ethanol, which is sourced from food crops like sugarcane and foodgrains. 
What is Ethanol-blanded Gasoline

Factors that Derive production of ethanol in India 

  • Demand Enrichment: Governments’ mandate for blending a minimum percentage (%) of ethanol with gasoline fuel & production of ethanol compatible vehicles.
  • Supply Enrichment: Schemes for ethanol production from different feedstocks and encouragement to augment bio-refineries and their capacities.
  • Incentives: Promoting the use of higher ethanol blends through price incentives (tax relief at the retail level) and tax incentives for vehicles compatible with E20 and E85.

Prospects of Biofuel in India 

  • The demand for 20 per cent blending is set to increase India’s ethanol demand to nearly 1,100 crore liters by 2025. 
  • Achieving the 2025 target will require investments, and the ability to provide and divert the necessary feedstock for the domestic production of ethanol. 
  • A NITI Aayog report also indicated a growth in petrol demand by over 45 per cent by 2030, compared to 2021. 
  • The share of four-wheeler is going to increase Nearly 55 per cent of respondents in a 2021 study focused on urban India by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water. 

Challenges to Bio-fuels in India

  • 1G Ethanol Dominance: India primarily relies on first-generation (1G) ethanol, sourced from food crops, particularly sugar cane and foodgrains, to meet its ethanol blending targets.
  • Resource Depletion and Food Security:
    • Growing sugar cane and using foodgrains for ethanol production have significant implications for groundwater depletion and food security.
    • These practices may not be sustainable, given stagnant crop yields, climate change impacts, and limited resources.
  • Groundwater Issue: 
    • Groundwater depletion from sugarcane cultivation and diverting food crops for ethanol production can have negative consequences, especially given stagnant crop yields and the need to feed a growing population.
    • According to the study by University of Michigan rates of groundwater depletion could triple during 2040-81 compared with the current rate.
  • Agriculture’s GHG Emissions: Diverting crops towards fuel production increases greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the agriculture sector, counteracting the goal of reducing emissions in the transport sector.
  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions: The agriculture sector is noted for its direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and using it to produce motor fuel may lead to a net increase in emissions, counteracting efforts to reduce emissions from the transport sector.
  • Challenge of Scaling up: Balancing economies of scale with energy needs and costs for biomass collection and transport remains a challenge.

Way Forward

  • Clarity in Definition: The term ‘biofuel’ encompasses both sustainable and unsustainable fuels. Distinguishing between them is crucial for effective decarbonization efforts.
  • Sustainable Biofuels:
    • Sustainable biofuels, produced from crop residues and other low-impact sources, have a lower water and GHG footprint. 
    • Global Biofuels Alliance initiative aim to develop these sustainable alternatives and promote ethanol use.
  • Biomass Use: The Energy Transitions Commission recommends prioritizing biomass use in sectors where low-carbon alternatives are limited, such as long-haul aviation and road freight, where electrification is challenging.
  • Alternative Strategies: Alternative strategies can be formulated to reduce negative consequences, such as reducing surplus sugarcane cultivation, could be explored to address the issue of surplus sugar production and prioritize food production.
  • Diversification of Fuel Base: Diversifying our fuel base, the primary focus of policy must be to slow down the overall consumption of petrol in the economy and address the private demand for fuel. 

Achieving true sustainability in biofuels is a complex task. Any strategy must be carefully assessed within the larger ecosystem to avoid unintended negative consequences.

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