Through the adoption of BioCNG, a circular economy can be created, and farmers will benefit from the additional income
India is the second most populous country in the world after China. With a population of 1.3 billion and counting, the onus of feeding all those mouths lies predominately with agriculture.
Agriculture is the backbone of the Indian economy, directly and indirectly employing nearly 58 per cent of the country’s population. It also contributes substantially to the country’s economy, accounting for 20.2 per cent of the nation’s GDP in 2020-21, with US$ 35.09 billion in earnings from exports in FY20 alone.
Given its importance, it is unfortunate that the farmers themselves are struggling to make ends meet. Climatic change, little or no mechanisation, degradation of soil due to excessive chemical usage, lack of access to insurance and credit are some of the maladies afflicting agriculture and the agriculturists alike.
Of the total geographical area of India that stands in excess of 29 lakh square kilometres, nearly 43 per cent of all that land is used for agricultural activities of some sort or the other. With such large-scale cultivation being carried out, the waste produced annually is of gigantic proportions too. With paddy, nearly 70 per cent of the crop is waste as it is unfit for human consumption. In 2017-18 alone, about 586 million tonnes of crop residue was generated across the country.
Disposing of this waste is now a growing concern. Of the 586 million tonnes of the crop waste generated, nearly 116 million tonnes were burnt. In the states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana, farmers have only a short duration between the months of October and November every year to harvest the monsoon crop and then ready the land for the next crop. Due to this, and the paucity of funds to procure the right machinery to pull out the straw, farmers resort to burning the stubble to clear their lands, leading to severe air pollution.
According to the government, the contribution towards the air pollution in Delhi-NCR from the burning of agricultural waste went up to 15 per cent in 2020, a substantial increase from the 10 per cent of 2019. The fact that the stubble is burnt in the winter months compounds the severity of the pollution, as lower ambient temperatures, coupled with lack of strong winds, prevent the smoke from dissipating into the atmosphere and causes it to hang over the city as smog.
Fortunately, there is a way out and it lies in a gas that is being increasingly viewed the world over as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
Called Biogas, this gaseous substance is produced through the anaerobic decomposition of any sort of organic matter – including agricultural waste – in a digester. This raw Biogas contains many impurities such as carbon dioxide and moisture which reduce its calorific value substantially. To remedy this, using appropriate processes, the impurities are extracted and the resulting gas, with a methane content of 90 per cent and above, is called CBG. CBG is a clean burning gas and can be readily used as an automotive fuel.
Although many processes are currently in use for the extraction of CBG from raw Biogas, most of them require the input of water and chemicals which generate effluents that must be disposed off responsibly. But various technologically superior systems, like membrane technology, are being developed that are more efficient in terms of methane extraction and generate no waste effluent. This makes the whole ecosystem of the production of CBG far more sustainable than when techniques like water and chemical scrubbing are employed.
By virtue of these BioCNG plants, agricultural stubble can be harnessed as feedstock and farmers can now be monetarily rewarded for waste that would have previously been burnt on their fields. The sludge left behind in the digestors after the gas has been extracted makes for excellent organic manure and can be repurposed by agriculturists in their farms.
Through the adoption of BioCNG, a circular economy can be created, and farmers will benefit from the additional income. However, the economic benefits from transitioning to this fuel will go well beyond the agriculturists themselves and will extend to rural India as a whole. By virtue of the SATAT initiatives, the government plans to set up 5,000 compressed Biogas plants across the country. These plants are estimated to create 75,000 direct jobs and lakhs of indirect employment opportunities, all of which will be a boon for the people in the villages who are unemployed.
Thus, along with effectively creating wealth from waste, the transition to BioCNG will provide a viable solution to the deteriorating air quality caused by crop burning, reduce India’s reliance on petroleum imports and simultaneously provide a renewable energy source that can help eradicate the country’s organic waste management problems.
(Views expressed in the article are author’s own. Vinod Paremal is the Regional President of Evonik in the Indian Subcontinent. Evonik is a creative industrial group from Germany and one of the world’s leading specialty chemicals companies.)
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