Trains may soon run on Bio-diesel

Partha Ghosh & Abhilasha in New Delhi
Business Standard, July 15, 2003

Bio-fuel has been successfully tested on a Shatabdi Express

In a couple of years you could be travelling in a train that runs on derivatives of non-edible vegetable oils. The railways have successfully tested bio-fuel on a Shatabdi Express between New Delhi and Amritsar, while stationary locomotives are gearing up to run on the eco-friendly fuel.

Executive Director (mechanical engineering) of Indian Railways Shakeel Ahmed says the railways have already tested 5 per cent to 20 per cent blends of bio-diesel fuel on engine test beds at the Research Design and Standards Organisation, Lucknow.

Though fuel efficiency for the blends is 1 per cent lower than for high-speed diesel, improved lubrication more than compensates for the deficiency. Recently, a Shatabdi was successfully run from Delhi to Amritsar and back on a 5 per cent bio-diesel blend.

Bio-diesel is derived from natural oils, edible as well as non-edible, which are made of triglycerides. Triglycerides when reacted chemically with alcohol in the presence of a simple catalyst result in fatty acid esters, which are very similar to petroleum-derived diesel. These esters, called bio-diesel, process higher “cetane”, a measure of willingness of fuel to ignite when compressed.

“Bio-diesel and its blends have been tested worldwide and its use has been approved by most reputed engine manufacturers. The biggest advantage of using bio-diesel is that no engine modification is required.

The existing diesel engine can run on bio-diesel. If we pledge to use 10 per cent bio-diesel countrywide, about 4-5 million tonnes of the fuel will be required, which is not difficult to achieve,” says an official of Indian Oil Corporation, which developed the fuel for the railways.

The official adds that though worldwide bio-diesel is derived from soyabean oil, IOC has developed a process to produce it from non-edible oils like Jatropha and Karanjia because India does not produce surplus edible vegetable oils.

The railways have signed a memorandum of understanding with the oil major, as per which 500 hectares of railway land will be leased to IOC at a token fee of Re 1 per year.

IOC will then lease out the land for cultivation of Jatropha and will be responsible for seed collection, trans-esterification and blending. Land in Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Jaipur divisions will be allocated for this purpose. The bio-fuel will be supplied to the railways at mutually agreed prices. The MoU is for 15 years, which can be extended by mutual consent.

The oil major has already received expressions of interest from several parties to carry out the plantation. Since Jatropha trees take two years to bear fruit, we are still some moons away from bio-fuel becoming a reality, Ahmed says. But the railways will keep testing its trains on the fuel from time to time.

Apart from the pilot project with Indian Oil, the railways have launched a massive drive to undertake the plantation of Jatropha tree on its surplus land. This will have help to reduce encroachments on railway land.