Renewable, green fuel startups aim to disrupt India’s emissions

Over 3,300 startups are now working in the renewable energy sector in India and many of these startups are involved in the green fuel sector to reduce carbon emissions.

A train station in Mumbai, India. Image: World Bank Photo Collection, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

A battery made from aloe vera? That’s what Nimisha Varma, a 25-year-old entrepreneur from Jaipur, Rajasthan is exploring through her startup Aloe Ecell

In 2019, after completing her engineering at the Rajasthan Technical University, Varma and her friend Naveen Suman, co-founded the green fuel startup to explore ways to manufacture an eco-friendly battery that is made from natural extracts, replacing the toxic and hazardous components of batteries and is safe to dispose as it does not cause soil degradation or air pollution.

The duo experimented with using plant extracts as electrolytes instead of harmful chemicals. This included testing apple, cucumber, potato, and other natural items for their efficacy as an electrolyte for a 1.5-volt battery. Ultimately after several attempts and experiments, the startup found aloe vera as a good source of electrolytes for these eco-friendly batteries.

In 2019, the team came up with their first prototype of an eco-friendly battery.

“Initially, we were working in the electronic waste (e-waste) sector. During our work, we realised that the bulk of the e-waste comes from the used small batteries that are used in many electronic gadgets. So, we decided to change the composition of the batteries and tried to replace the chemical and hazardous parts with eco-friendly alternatives,” Varma told Mongabay-India.

She emphasised that they have completed the second pilot with more than 1,500 users and are all set to bring the product for commercial use soon while work is also on bringing eco-friendly rechargeable batteries too.

This is a niche area where biogas could be used for charging. A cubic meter of biogas generates up to 1.5 units of electricity.

Rajesh Ayappasur, director for business development and partnerships, GPS Renewables

Varma claimed that in conventional batteries the majority of the battery parts are import-based. She said the conventional batteries have the potential to explode and release toxic material leading to the water, soil, and air pollution which is something that their batteries can avoid due to the natural products used as a fuel source.

Similar to Varma’s firm, is Bengaluru-based GPS Renewables, also a startup working to counter the hazards of conventional fuel. The company recently installed an Electric Vehicle (EV) charging station in Mumbai that runs on biogas produced from waste.

GPS Renewables is known for popularising the production of biogas from food wastes in more than 100 private and public institutions across the country and using it as a substitute for LPG for cooking. The use of biogas for charging EVs was a new experiment by them to cater to the growing demand for EV charging stations.

“This is a niche area where biogas could be used for charging EVs. It was our first such project. Since we know that a cubic meter of biogas generates up to 1.5 units of electricity, we planned to use it to charge electric vehicles. In many cases, the EVs do not cause emissions but if coal-based thermal power is used to charge the EVs, it ultimately causes emissions. If we use biogas as a source of power to charge EVs, we can make the whole process cleaner,” Rajesh Ayappasur, Director (Business Development and Partnerships) at GPS Renewables, told Mongabay-India.

The firm tied up with the local municipal body for the collection of organic food wastes to produce biogas which would then be used for charging EVs. It is also exploring if it could be scaled up in the future.

However, based on previous experiences of waste to energy plants leading to protests from local residents, Ayappasur said, “such problems come when there is a dry waste or mixed waste but in our case, the source of waste is organic kitchen wastes which are processed internally without causing any piles of garbage in local areas or any foul smell,” he said.

Innovations to address agricultural residues

Besides biogas, several other forms of biofuel generation often release byproducts such as carbon dioxide especially when there is the processing of agricultural residues and other biomass when bioethanol (a biofuel) is produced.

Bioethanol is now procured by the oil marketing companies to blend it with petrol under the National Ethanol Blending Programme of the federal government, aimed at reducing imports of crude oil and also moving towards a cleaner fuel regime. After achieving the 10 per cent blending target earlier, the government is now aiming at 20 per cent blending of petrol with ethanol by 2025-26.

However, Chandigarh-based Jap Innogy (JAP) founded by D.S. Mahal, who has more than three decades of global experience in energy, natural resources, and biofuel industries, is trying to capture carbon dioxide.

“Carbon dioxide is a major by-product when cellulosic biofuel refineries use enzymatic fermentation of the biomass and it has a good potential for revenue addition. We have a robust engineering design in place to deploy for selling this by-product as ‘Renewable-Carbon Dioxide or BioCO2’.

Simply put, we will capture carbon dioxide, purify it and process it into liquid/gaseous form in compliance with food grade standards, which means a 99.99 per cent purity level. Usually, till now, all fizzy drinks use chemical carbon dioxide, however, with the use of this Renewable-Carbon Dioxide such drink manufacturers can proudly display the ‘Renewable-CO2/BioCO2’ mark on their packs, which adds immense value to their brand for being environmentally conscious,” Mahal explained to Mongabay-India.

He said, while being head of the biofuel operations and projects division in a top Dutch multinational company, he was the first one in India (and Asia) to lead and produce bio CO2 in 2015-16. The firm has completed all the pre-project activities, and stakeholder alignments and are progressing through the final stages for the formal launch.

Mahal, based in Chandigarh, is also working towards processing 32 different types of second-generation feedstocks like agricultural residues (rice straw, wheat straw, corn stover, bagasse, cotton stalk, various grasses, etc.) and forestry wastes (wood chips, shrubs, pine needles, etc.) to reduce stubble burning and bringing such potential pollutants for the production of bioethanol – a renewable source of energy.

Away from the urban centres, innovations in biofuels are also happening in semi-urban and rural areas. Based in Wai in Maharashtra, Yash Joshi has been working for the last five years on the torrefaction (thermal pretreatment) of agricultural residues to allow more efficient utilisation of these “low grade” raw materials and waste (by-products) for the production of heat, electricity, and chemicals.

Torrefaction refers to the technology used to upgrade the fuel properties of these agricultural residues, thus enabling them to be used in combustion and gasification processes at higher efficiencies and reduced emissions.

“Globally, high-efficiency combustors and gasifiers based on biomass fuels are forced to use white wood pellets as raw materials. Although these pellets have favourable combustion properties, they are very expensive (about five times the price of coal on an energy basis) which makes operations unviable in absence of subsidies. In the past decades, European utilities experimented with torrefied wood pellets instead, which promised even better calorific performance but at costs even greater than white wood pellets,” he told Mongabay-India.

“The real game changer, however, has been the ability to torrefy and upgrade of the low-grade materials like rice straw, wheat straw, sugarcane trash which we are doing now in India, which opens up opportunities to use a cheaper raw material source as the input, thus improving the viability of bio-based processes. We have been consistently developing the technology over the last five years with very promising results in testing. We are presently scaling up the invention to a scale that would be commercially deployable” Joshi said.

Joshi, who had previously worked within the energy sector in the Netherlands returned to India in 2017 and founded Aganvay Technologies– a firm that provides end-to-end research and product development services for the renewable energy sector, specifically in moving nascent innovations from the lab to field. He developed the torrefaction technology for the Amsterdam-based start-up TorrGreen and claims that this technology can help India to boost the use of low-cost biomass resources for producing electricity and fuels like bio-methanol while reducing environmental menaces such as stubble-burning.

Besides these clean tech ventures, there are many startups in India offering new solutions for the renewable energy sector. According to a joint report released by Climate Trends and Climate Dot, India is third in the world after the United States and China when it comes to the size of startups. However, the report claimed that the Indian government needed to ensure climate finance for cleantech startups if it wants to meet its net-zero emissions targets.

Akhilesh Magal, Director of ClimateDot said that these clean technology startups could play a key role in pushing the transformation to fight against climate change but it needed dedicated backing from the government to achieve its target. The report claimed that Indian government schemes such as Startup India and Aatmanirbhar Bharat have helped the sector but most startups are still in metro cities or on university campuses but to expand to the whole country they need hand-holding along with right policy and financial support.

According to the government data by June 30, 2022, India had a total of 72,933 registered startups but of them, around 48 per cent (34,473) are confined to metro cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Pune, and Ahmedabad. On July 27, the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry told the parliament that a total of 3,300 startups are working in the climate action sector providing solutions for the growth of renewable energy.

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