Can sugar mills cater to the oxygen demand?

Radheshyam Jadhav Pune | Updated on April 26, 2021

A district in Maharashtra requires about 18 MT of medical oxygen daily to treat Covid-19 patients

Osmanabad district in Maharashtra requires about 18 MT of medical oxygen daily to treat Covid-19 patients and soon this oxygen would come from a sugar mill in the locality.

The Dharashiv Sugar Mill has modified its ethanol plant and is expecting to generate 20 MT of medical grade oxygen every day by catching and processing the oxygen which is released in the atmosphere. The molecule required for purifying the oxygen to medical-grade has been installed and oxygen production is on the anvil according to mill Chairman Abhijit Patil.

The development has stirred sugar circles in Maharashtra and has put the industry on the guard.

In the last few days, especially after Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) Chief Sharad Pawar held a meeting of millers to discuss oxygen manufacturing in mills, the sugar industry is treading with caution, especially considering the cost involved, impact on ethanol production and infrastructure.

“ This (oxygen manufacturing) is the dire need of the hour. Initiative and Technology is welcome. More such plants are certainly possible but would see the day only after the success of Dharashiv pilot plant” said Prakash Naiknavare, MD, National Federation of Cooperative Sugar Factories.

Pawar who also heads Vasantdada Sugar Institute (VSI) said that factories, which are still in the crushing season, as well as those which have taken on distillation projects, should produce medical oxygen, while those which have completed crushing can produce and supply oxygen kits to patients.

Pawar insisted that sugar factories have been refining ethanol and separating carbon dioxide in distillation projects and now they have to just install an oxygen separation project. Pawar has asked millers to inform themselves about the vacuum swing adsorption (VSA) process (which segregates certain gases from a gaseous mixture at near ambient pressure) and proceed accordingly to set up oxygen-generation plants.

What industry’s stand?

Out of 190 sugar mills that started crushing this season in Maharashtra, 156 mills have already completed their operations and hence only 34 mills are functional. Out of functional mills 24 are from Ahmednagar and Aurangabad districts and many of these mills are already struggling to manage their finances. Mills across the State have still not paid ₹2,073 crore FRP arrears to farmers. In the given scenario many mills would ask for government support to manufacturing oxygen.

“We need to be factual so that there is no misunderstanding on sugar mills producing oxygen. Sugar mills have no system to manufacture oxygen but some have ethanol plants. There are suggestions that molecular sieve in ethanol plant must be modified so that oxygen could be filtered. But there are three things involved in this. Mills will have to stop ethanol production. There is a cost involved in the modification and what happens to the investment when there will be no demand for medicinal oxygen,” said one of the senior industry players speaking to BusinessLine.

He said that Dharashiv sugar factory is new and is not producing ethanol and hence it was smooth for the mills to make modifications and manufacture oxygen. He added that suggestions are coming from the government that if mills have a system, they must manufacture oxygen. “We don’t have a ready system. It needs modification. Some mills are also in the process to import skid-mounted oxygen units, but this process will take time,” he said.

Published on April 26, 2021

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