On 27 August 2018, India flew its first biofuel-powered Jet, a SpiceJet aircraft, from Dehradun to Delhi. This flight was received by Union Minister Dr Harshvardhan, Nitin Gadkari, Dharmendra Pradhan and Suresh Prabhu at IGI Airport, and little wonder why. This was a momentous victory as India had now officially entered the era of using biofuels with ATF instead of using ATF alone. The team behind this remarkable feat is a team of 20 led by Principal Investigator, Dr Anil Sharma from IIP-Dehradun.

The implications of this flight are momentous. Flight expenditure is seen to be reduced by 20%. The operating cost will be reduced from 17% to 20%. Air travel is estimated to contribute up to 2.5% of total carbon dioxide emissions currently, which can increase up to 4 times in the next 30 years. Biofuel is estimated to reduce up to 4000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year thereby underlining its ability to curb environmental pollution.

Historically, India has increasingly been importing biofuel. In 2013, for instance, 38 million litres of biofuel was received, which reached 141 million litres in 2017. With the development of biofuel within the country, India has now banned the import of biofuels for fuel purposes with a view to developing its own biofuel developing capacity. Biojet fuel has the capacity to provide security to the airlines against fluctuation in ATF (Aviation Turbine Fuels) prices. Also, it buffers against the imminent scarcity of ATF in the near future.

The economic implications of this development are even more far-reaching. Almost 400 varieties of seeds in India have the potential to be made into a biofuel. Farmers, therefore, will have an alternate method to create biofuel.

This specific process of making the biofuels from crude oil of Jatropha seeds was patented by Dr Anil Sinha in 2012. To briefly outline the process, the creation of this biofuel is based on a single-step hydrocracking process with a non-precious metal-based catalyst developed in-house. Also, this process is amenable to other feedstocks such as oil from Algae, Karanj, Camelina, neem etc. Presently, about 2 tonnes Jatropha seeds yield 400 litres of fuel where the lab was able to make 4 litres of fuel per hour. For this particular feat, a team of 20 researchers worked round the clock. It needs to be noted, however, that the fuel used in the flight was a mixture of ATF and Jatropha derived biofuel.

CSIR-IIP is the first institute in India to produce 300 litres of high-quality bio jet fuel from Jatropha curcas oil. In fact, previously, approximately 130 litres of biofuel was supplied to aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, Canada, 70 litres to IOCl for blending and further supplying to IISc Banglore for engine tests.

This development is a huge step in the direction of making real strides in the application of science in our lives. It needs to be seen, however, if this step makes real inroads into the field of making India self-sufficient in the domain of bio-fuels or if this remains as another token gesture.