Fuel and fertilizer for all

December 14, 2019

Rural life is difficult and dangerous, especially for the poor. The WHO has estimated 50,000 premature deaths occurring annually due to indoor pollution caused by uncontrolled burning of bio-mass...

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Rural life is difficult and dangerous, especially for the poor. The WHO has estimated 50,000 premature deaths occurring annually due to indoor pollution caused by uncontrolled burning of bio-mass for cooking and heating.

More than 50 percent of the population, mostly of rural areas, relies on biomass. Rural poor households suffer an iniquitous price regime; they have to spend 25 percent of their income on buying fuels like kerosene, LPG, charcoal and wood. Most of the poor are off thegas grid and are forced to buy expensive fuel that costs 10 times the lowest domestic piped-gas slab. Biogas did not fulfill its promise due to the high initial cost.

For households fuel and fertilizer needs, biomass gasification based gasifier stoves offer a much cheaper and viable solution. Bio-stoves are a major technical development. Bio-stoves utilize ordinary biomass waste like crop residue, shrubs and tree branches which are crushed or reduced in size. Biomass briquettes are also used. There is nothing new in burning shrubs and other agricultural wastes in rural stoves. However, conventional stoves waste biomass, consuming twice as much as efficient gasifier stoves. Conventional open stoves causes immense indoor pollution and are injurious to women, who have to cook daily. What is new in bio-stoves and how are they different? Bio-stoves utilize pyrolitic gasification which used to be the domain of larger plants at the commercial and industrial scale. There are two chambers in bio-stoves; the lower one converts biomass into biogas and the upper chamber burns it in a cleaner fashion, producing no soot. The efficiency of ordinary biomass stoves is under 20 percent, while gasifier stoves have efficiency of more than 40 percent.

The WWF, UETL (University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore) and SNGPL have combined in a project to popularize bio-Stoves around the Lahore area initially. They have developed a local version employing forced draft by electric fan (which may only be used in urban and semi-urban areas with electricity), and have distributed 500 bio-stoves free of charge to rural communities in the area.

A similar product that is being marketed commercially is priced at Rs5000, which would be clearly unaffordable. The price has to be under Rs 1000. In rural areas, raw biomass is readily available. In urban areas, biomass briquettes can be used. A market will eventually emerge of biomass briquettes. At present, biomass briquettes are available at around Rs20 per kg as opposed to charcoal with a price tag of Rs75-95 per kg.

Gasifier stoves produce biochar as waste. Biochar is a bio-fertilizer produced out of constrained burning (pyrolysis in technical language). It has been produced at the commercial and industrial level. It is being marketed in India at a price of INRS9-13 per kg. Biochar is a soil conditioner improving soil fertility. It sequesters carbon and has a life of three years. There are reports of 30-80 percent increase in crop yield due to its usage.

There are many applications of biochar. It can be used as heat insulator in walls and roofs. It is a near replacement of activated carbon and can be used in rural water supply systems easily and economically. What is new in biochar is that it can be produced in rural household bio-stoves as a byproduct. Internationally, the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) is developing the technology and socializing of this product. In Pakistan, it is still in an embryonic stage, known to enthusiast circles and a limited class of green and organic farmers.

There are many SMEs producing and marketing biochar in the US. Companies like GE, ConocoPhillips and Google have put money into a Biochar joint venture, Cool Planet, which is reportedly building a plant that would produce gasoline as well as biochar. These investors are the owners of synthetic gas technology, which uses coal to produce gasoline, diesel, fertilizers and chemicals from partial burning of coal. What is new is that instead of coal, biomass is being used as feedstock and the waste that results is biochar. A lot of product differentiation is coming in, preparing formulations by mixing other substances. A product has been introduced by mixing biochar with humates which should be of some commercial interest to our Thar coal mining companies wherein humics are found in the overburden.

In the US, a $56 million production facility is reportedly to produce 10 million gallons of gasoline and an unspecified amount of biochar. The target selling price is $1.5 a gallon as opposed to a spot price of $1.67 per gallon at Nymex currently. They want to bring down CAPEX to $20 million. Also there are plans to market modularized containers for small plants. There are plans in Europe to produce Bio-DME (DiMetyl Ether) to replace 50 percent of their diesel requirements by 2030.

Our agriculture universities have a great opportunity and the potential for R&D in biochar, developing locally compatible formulations and supporting local start-ups. Large companies may also like to consider it. They can produce both biochar and urea from the same plant. Currently, our plants are utilizing gas. They can use biomass as feedstock in new synthetic gas facilities, and produce both urea and biochar. It has to be studied whether Thar coal can also yield biochar. There are limitations on the availability of biomass, although currently there is surplus. Thar coal is almost limitless. Fertilizer production can also be a soft alibi for utilizing Thar coal in a world environment which is going against coal.

Both the rich and the poor can benefit – the rich from large-scale commercial production and the poor from their open stoves and smaller biochar production facilities. This is not hyperbole. We are burning rice stubble and causing air pollution and smog. Children are not permitted to go to school and others are suffering from many injurious health issues.

Biomass waste has great potential for improving the quality of rural life for the poor, meeting fuel and fertilizer needs apart from subsidizing agriculture, solid waste disposal and sewage disposal. There are other applications of biochar as well substituting active carbon which is a filter material that can be used in rural water supply and sewerage schemes.

For Improved Cooking Stoves (ICS), a subsidy programme would be required. A major difference can be made by a project distributing/marketing one million stoves, a subsidy per piece which will result in a total budget of Rs1.5 billion. Spread over two to three years, it is quite manageable. International grant funding may also be available. Once the market is developed, the cost would come down automatically and the subsidy requirement may be reduced significantly.

In the past, much more subsidy per unit has been given. This would be the cheapest deal to handle the issue. For a large scale, fertilizer companies are big enough and organized enough to go ahead, if they find it feasible. SMEs may require some facilitation by organizations like SMEDA.

The writer is a former member of the Energy Planning Commission and author of ‘Pakistan’s Energy Issues: Success and Challenges’.

Email: akhtarali1949gmail.com

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