Sustainable Biofuel Supply Chain Can Help Tackle Delhi's Smog Menace_ Interview

The national capital region is struggling to catch a breath. Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident but an annually recurring phenomenon in Delhi. The air quality, which had improved tremendously during the lockdown, deteriorated swiftly in the past month. The air quality is currently in the ‘very poor’ category, making day-to-day life more difficult amid the ongoing pandemic.

To understand the menace of air pollution and ways to tackle it effectively, Mercom talked to Dr. Pramod Chaudhari, Founder & Executive Chairman of Praj Industries. The company is involved in the production of 2G bio-ethanol technology that can reduce smog levels arising from the burning of agricultural residue. Here are the edited excerpts of the interview:

Smog is a recurring issue in Delhi. What are the reasons behind this?

Dust, vehicular pollution, and stubble burning/ farm fires are the main causes of dipping air quality in Delhi in winters. According to a recent IIT Kanpur study, vehicular pollution is the second biggest polluter in winter at 20% of particulate matter (PM), while stubble burning contributes to 17-20%.


During the paddy crop harvest, most farms use combined harvesters, which separate the grain, leaving the paddy straw and stalk behind. The agricultural crop residue must be cleared within 45 days before the next crop can be planted.

This leaves a very narrow window for farmers to harvest, clear fields and sow wheat for the next cycle. Additionally, there is no other ideal solution to collect the paddy residue and no suitable supply chain model for further processing. Stubble burning/ farm fires have therefore been a convenient method to get rid of paddy waste quickly and cheaply for several years.

According to a Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) report, more than 20 million metric tons per year of surplus paddy straw residue is available in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, which has the potential to produce biofuels. Although the state governments are encouraging the use of in situ management plantation, it is taking longer to be effectively implemented.

This practice results in vast smoke blankets across the northern and neighboring states, including Delhi, which is likely to impact the environment and public health adversely.

  • As per a TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) report, in 2019, the air pollution in New Delhi and other parts of north India was 20 times higher than the safe threshold level as prescribed by the World Health Organization.
  • Stubble burning affects flora and fauna, reducing fertility by destroying organic carbon. Research indicates that a ton of agricultural waste, when burnt, destroys 5 kg nitrogen, 2.3 kg phosphorous, 25 kg potassium, and more than 1 kg of sulfur.
  • If used as fuel for chulhas,(cooking stoves) the health of rural women may be adversely affected.
  • Heavy pollution may aggravate or lead to respiratory illnesses.

What should be the approach to address this challenge?

The need of the hour is to implement decentralized farm to fuel projects by establishing an assured and sustainable supply chain model. Projects like 2G advanced bioethanol and compressed biogas (CBG) are a few alternatives to utilize straw more effectively. They will also help build a circular bioeconomy by producing transportation fuel and bio-fertilizer for farmers.

How should agricultural waste be handled to minimize pollution?

To prevent stubble burning, the states need to ensure collection, storage and supply residue to biofuel projects. The state also needs to build a sustainable biomass supply chain by developing village level entrepreneurs.

The central government’s agricultural mechanization programs need to be co-opted by the state government to establish mechanization in the biomass supply chain.

Institutes like NABARD and agricultural universities can play a key role in funding and extension work to make farmers aware of agricultural crop residue utilization for biofuels.

It makes enormous sense, therefore, to route agricultural crop residue towards the production of biofuel instead of burning and destroying it and causing air pollution.

As a leading technology and engineering company, Praj has developed solutions to utilize agricultural crop residue to produce biofuel. The company is setting up three biorefineries in Punjab, Haryana, and Odisha along with oil marketing companies HPCL, IOCL and BPCL, respectively. The projects based on paddy straw as feedstock will produce 2G advanced bioethanol using Praj’s proprietary enfinityTM technology.

Praj has demonstrated its effective RenGasTM technology to convert agricultural residue into CBG while producing high-quality biofertilizer.

Tell us about the role of Compressed Biogas in battling smog?

The Ministry of Petroleum and Oil and Gas has launched a program called Sustainable Alternative Towards Affordable Transportation (SATAT) under which 5,000 CBG plants will be built across India in the first phase.

Most of these units will utilize agricultural crop residue as raw material or feedstock to produce CBG and replace CNG. This requires more than 90 million metric tons of crop residue to meet the growing demand for transport fuel by blending biofuels or replacing fossil fuel.

Considering the assured demand for crop residue for 2G or CBG projects, farmers would prefer to collect and supply the residue to biofuel projects instead of burning it in fields.

Praj is promoting the usage of biofuels in all modes of transportation through its BioMobilityTM platform. Biomobility platform envisages utilization of agricultural residues and organic waste-derived biofuels in the form of ethanol, renewable, biodiesel, renewable biogas, sustainable aviation fuel and sustainable marine fuel as the primary energy source for driving mobility across the surface, air, and marine.

Are the present government policies providing enough support to ethanol and biofuel production?

The government is offering conducive policy support for the production of biofuel. It has planned to achieve a 20% ethanol blending program (EBP) by 2030 and replace 15 million metric tons of CNG in the first phase. It also launched the progressive National Biofuels Policy and is setting up 12 agricultural crops residue-based 2G ethanol projects across India, of which five have been initiated in the first phase. The Ministry has also launched a financial mechanism called PM JI-VAN Yojana to fund these projects across India.

As part of the SATAT initiative, the government is ensuring an off-take price of ₹46 ($0.61)/kg of CBG. The MNRE also has enlisted support by launching subsidies for waste to wealth programs to generate CBG.

In a country like India, where its agrarian sector fuels the overall economic growth, biofuels assume great significance in light of the country’s ambitious goals of doubling farmers’ income, import reduction, employment generation, and waste-to-wealth creation.