At the foothills of the Himalayas, in the city of Dehradun, India’s government is working on a jet fuel it hopes can help clean up the smog hanging over its big cities. 

There - on a sprawling 300-acre tea estate where leopards and deer can be spotted - scientists are working with partners including Boeing Co. to get global approvals for their biofuel, which is made from waste cooking oil and the seeds of plants like pongamia and jatropha that aren’t consumed. 

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The project run by the Indian Institute of Petroleum, a laboratory of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, is India’s attempt at shaking up the $155 billion global biofuels industry, which has long been dogged by criticism that crop-based alternatives like ethanol can trigger indirect emissions by expanding farmland and driving up food prices for the world’s poorest people. 

Challenges

The institute has tied up with IndiGo to deploy its homegrown fuel, however, its researchers face a string of challenges. Not only is the new technology for the production of the fuel more expensive than traditional jet fuel, but there are difficulties collecting sufficient raw materials, hampering scientists’ ability to produce it on a wide enough scale to be commercially viable.

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Building the infrastructure needed to transport and store the sustainable aviation fuel will take “significant” investments, said Salil Gupte, president of Boeing India. 

“At this point, it’s more about first proving that we can do the fuel locally and that’s what we’re engaged on with IIP,” Gupte said. “The infrastructure to build out the availability of jet aviation fuel has taken decades and decades, so we’re going to have to either modify or build over that system an equally convenient capability for sustainable aviation fuel.”

Villagers rummage through jungles of Chhattisgarh and Karnataka to gather seeds of wild jatropha and pongamia trees, which are then crushed in small mills to extract oils that then travel hundreds of miles in trucks to reach the institute in Dehradun and get converted into sustainable aviation fuel.

While they work on boosting scale, the Dehradun scientists are also seeking approval for the fuel from ASTM International, the Pennsylvania-based organization that develops and publishes standards for products and services globally. Boeing says it’s presently helping review and support the certification process for the aviation fuel samples from Dehradun. Airbus SE, meanwhile, is studying the demand and challenges of sustainable aviation fuel in India with Paris-based airport operator Groupe ADP among others to prepare a business case for the fuel’s local production.

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Advantages

One advantage the fuel would have over other alternatives being used in the US is that it doesn’t have to be blended with regular jet fuel and can potentially be used as is, according to Anil Sinha, senior principal scientist at the institute. 

“In the US, we’re still giving an option to food crops, and for that reason, I think India and Europe are ahead of what the US is proposing,” said Nikita Pavlenko, fuels team lead at the Washington-based International Council on Clean Transportation. At the same time, India’s strategy is harder to implement and more expensive, Pavlenko said. 

Senior officials at the ministries of petroleum and civil aviation didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Sustainable route

To commercialize the indigenous fuel, the center has given its technology to the government-owned Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd., and it plans to develop a plant with a capacity of 20,000 liters a day by 2024. But four years after SpiceJet Ltd. operated India’s first biofuel flight, the adoption of sustainable aviation fuel hasn’t taken off. 

India also doesn’t have the supply chains needed to gather feedstock in far off places. Anjan Ray, the institute’s director, estimates India has the potential to gather 3.5 million tons of oilseeds, but the actual collection is less than 500,000 tons annually.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has committed to turning India - the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases - net carbon zero by 2070, but his government faces difficulties on several fronts. By 2040, just 59.4 per cent of new car sales in India will be electric vehicles, compared with 84.6 per cent in China and 78.7 per cent in the US, BloombergNEF estimates. India may also miss its target of increasing renewable energy capacity to 175 gigawatts by the end of 2022 with state power retailers grappling with financial distress. 

For indigenous biofuel, much hinges on a push by the government. IndiGo, which has committed to blending 10 per cent sustainable aviation fuel by 2030, said in a statement that the government should give tax benefits and subsidies to encourage its use. India needs to build transportation, storage and airport infrastructure for blending of sustainable aviation fuel, it said. 

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Tapping used cooking oil or biomass waste is a more “sustainable route,” said Ramya Natarajan, group head for climate change mitigation at the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, a think tank in Bengaluru. “But the challenge there is the absence of a workable supply chain.” 

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