Biodiesel from used cooking oil: What’s fuelling five buses in Mangalore

In Mangalore, a state government-run research centre has developed the technology to convert used cooking oil to biodiesel. Five private buses here now run on biofuel blend

In a first-of-its-kind development, private city buses in Mangalore have started making a beeline to receive biofuel made out of Used Cooking Oil (UCO) from restaurants. Biofuel researchers here are set to create a unique ecosystem for disposing hazardous UCO while also creating an eco-friendly fuel for transportation fleet. The coastal district has over 100 medium to large scale eateries, and 360 private buses plying the routes.

Eight years ago, the Government of Karnataka had mooted the creation of 27 to 30 biofuel research information and demonstration centres in the state. This included a unit in Nitte village, Udupi District, under Dr C Vaman Rao, the Founder-Coordinator of Biodiesel Centre, Nitte Mahalinga Adyanthaya Memorial Institute of Technology (NMAMIT).

Just as their counterparts elsewhere, the biofuel researchers at NMAMIT tried to obtain biofuel from seeds and biofuel plants such as Simrouba and Jatropha initially. But the research fetched them limited success.

“These plants are not native to Dakshina Kannada. The plantations and seeds were not available in sufficient quantity, not as abundantly as in North Karnataka. So we actually had to spend more on sourcing such seeds from Malnad region and transporting the same,” said Dr Ujwal P of NMAMIT.

Moreover, as the demand for such seeds increased over the years, the procurement cost also shot up. So the researchers were forced to look for alternative raw material. “If the cost of the raw material increased, it would directly lead to escalation in the cost of the biofuel. We felt that any surge in cost may act as a disincentive for the owners of the bus fleet to switch to the green alternative,” Dr Ujwal said.

Procuring used oil from restaurants

Given that there are a growing number of restaurants in the coastal district, the researchers toyed with the idea of converting the large amount of UCO from restaurants into fuel. They surveyed 50-100 medium and large scale hotels in the region, and requested the proprietors to sell the oil for research purposes. 

“A few of the city-based hotels agreed, and committed to giving us the UCO for research purposes on a monthly basis. On average, the researchers procured the oil at the rate of Rs 22 per litre from these hotels,” Dr Ujwal said.

On preliminary examination, the researchers found that on average the hotels used 2 to 10 litres of oil per day and a similar amount of UCO went down the drain. Some others sold the used oil to soap-based industries.

In the absence of proper regulatory guidelines by food or health authorities, the researchers also uncovered a market for hazardous UCO. “Several middlemen buy the UCO from bigger hotels and sell them to petty eateries at half the price. Consuming food prepared in UCO oil can cause several health complications. It will definitely be in public interest if the government forms a framework on the disposal of UCO,” Dr Ujwal said.

With a batch production capacity of 50 litres of biofuel diesel (converted out of UCO oil of the same amount), NMAMIT procures UCO from hotels once every month.

Once the UCO is available, technologists at the NMAMIT facility use a single process, involving transesterification reaction, to convert it to biofuel. “This is an open technology. In fact, we teach this to anyone, including researchers or entrepreneurs ready to invest in ‘green transportation fleets’,” Co-researcher Dr Santhosh Poojary said.

The system at NMAMIT to convert UCO to biofuel. Pic credit: Dr Ujwal P

Five buses and two cars now run on biofuel

Over the last three years, the biofuel researchers have roped in five buses – three private city buses, and one bus each from two private colleges in the city – to run on biofuel blend. Although Dr Ujwal said that a vehicle can be driven 100 percent on biofuel, given the experimental phase they are advising fleet owners to use a blend of 10-20 percent biofuel with their existing fuel.

“In 2017, the city buses purchased about 500 litres of biodiesel and when we asked for feedback, no one complained. They, in fact, said that emission from the vehicle was much lower when compared to the vehicle solely run on diesel,” she said.

Professor Jason at NITTE University and Pranav Shetty of GSM Vidyaniketan school in Udupi city have been running their personal diesel cars on 100 percent biofuel for a few years now.

Biofuel can be used in any diesel vehicle, without any modification to the vehicle. Since the market cost for biofuel can’t be arrived at in the current testing phase, the researchers are selling it at Rs 10 lesser than the diesel price.

According to Dr Vinayaka B Shet, who is part of the research team at NMAMIT, the use of biofuel would also reduce the emission of carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide from vehicles. It is safe for the environment as it causes very little pollution. If produced on a large scale, Dr Ujwal says, biofuel can be a cost-effective means to power generators and pumps on irrigational land.

President of the Dakshina Kannada Bus Operators’ Association, Dilraj Alva, said that they have been monitoring the three buses that run on biofuel blend, and that these were operating normally. “While we would like to add more biofuel to our stock and enable more vehicles, we don’t have appropriate storage facility. Currently, biofuel is kept in bottles or canisters, which is unscientific,” he said.

What lies ahead

Researchers said that even the Karnataka State Biofuel Development Board (KSBDB) is waiting for the government’s nod for blending biodiesel in fuel stations, so that it is stored appropriately and made available for diesel vehicles.

However, even as the KSBDB was looking forward to increasing the production of biofuel, the plan has been suddenly hit by budget cuts from the state government. According to researchers, unlike the initial phases when the government used to release Rs 7 lakh per year, over the last five years only Rs 4 lakh has been released annually.

“Under such rigid financial constraints, it is difficult to continue the research in the same vein, as we need funds to conduct tests and even encourage and popularise the use of biofuel among the masses,” Dr Shet added.

Researchers say the budget cut maybe due to the blanket faith on the evolution of electric vehicles. “Electric vehicles are welcome, but they require a major infrastructure overhaul. Beyond metro city limits, recharge facility may be limited. Further, it will increase the dependency on electrical infrastructure, which is already under stress due to irregular power supply and generation. So it is essential that governments also support biofuels and other alternative fuels, for sustainable and eco-friendly solutions to mobility,” said Dr Ujwal.

Earlier in his column for Business Standard, Sandeep Chaturvedi, President of the non-profit Biodiesel Association of India (BDAI), wrote that in India, UCO offers huge scope for blending and this could further enhance the biofuel economy. UCO collection can also offer jobs in cities, he had said.

For the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the prospect of UCO-enabled biofuel has come as a breather, since it has been discouraging food manufacturing companies from reusing of UCO for years and encouraging its safe disposal.

In 2018, FSSAI had launched an ecosystem called RUCO (Repurpose Used Cooking Oil), to enable the collection and conversion of UCO to biodiesel. According to FSSAI, India is one of the largest consumers of vegetable oil, and has the potential to recover 220 crore litres of UCO for the production of biodiesel by 2022, through coordinated action. Through RUCO, FSSAI is implementing an Education, Enforcement and Ecosystem (EEE) strategy to divert UCO from the food value chain and to curb illegal practices as well.

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