The world is going through the strongest surge in energy
prices as crude oil prices have soared to more than $100 per barrel. The high
price of fossil fuels, environmental concerns, and geopolitical instability in
some major oil producing nations have spurred intense global interest in
alternative fuels, especially from renewable energy sources.
Developments in solar panels and wind farms favored by
eco-activist groups have been severely hampered in developing countries by
their high initial costs. Nuclear power for developing countries is still
viewed with suspicion; Crop-based fuel production has been the main focus of
interest in developing as well as developed countries. In US and European
countries ethanol and biodiesel are made from food or inedible crops, including
corn, sugarcane, maize, cassava, rapeseed (canola oil), soybeans, and palm oil.
Large scale production of biofuel has put tremendous
pressure on global grain prices. In the
short- and medium-term, ethanol can do little to affect oil consumption, but
the diversion of grain from food to fuel has already exerted a widespread and
profound ripple effect on various food commodities.
The United Sates produced 3.9 billion gallons of ethanol in
2006 and expanded its output to 6.5 billion in 2007. This took millions of hectares of land out of
food production. In 2007, 54 percent of the world's corn was grown in
the USA, and 38 percent of US corn crop ended up in gas tanks instead of
stomachs. The amount of corn required to produce a gallon ethanol is enough to
feed a human being for two weeks. Corn is mainly used to feed chickens and
cattle, so the price of poultry, eggs, beef, and dairy products will continue
In December 2007, President George W. Bush signed into law
the "Energy Independence and Security Act," which mandates that 36
billion gallons of biofuels to be produced in America every year by 2022, a
nearly fivefold increase over current production levels. The European Union has also announced it will
replace 10 percent of its oil consumption with biofuels by 2020.
Developed countries' commitment to biofuels has already
raised food costs and hunger risks for the world�s poor. The soaring price of staple food is not an isolated
phenomenon. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO), global food prices rose an incredible 40 percent in 2007 alone. FAO has
announced that 36 countries are in crisis as a result of higher food prices. Record world prices for most staple foods
have led to an 18 percent food price inflation in China, 13 percent in
Indonesia and Pakistan, and 10 percent or more in Latin America, Russia and
India, Wheat has doubled in price, maize is nearly 50 percent higher than a
year ago and rice is 20 percent more expensive, says the UN.
The traditional human priorities on use of good cropland
start with food. Famine, after all, is society�s ultimate failure. Tightening
the world�s food supply by diverting major quantities of its grain stocks into
fuels will drive up the prices of all food. This will inevitably hit hardest at
the poorest people in the world�s food-shortage regions. This would not be
ethical even if there were no other sources of energy.
Society is already farming about 37 percent of the global
land area, and already using almost all of the good quality land. Additional
farmland will have to come at the expense of forests and wild species, and is
likely to incur heavy penalties in terms of soil erosion, drought risks, and
endangered wild species.
In Pakistan, sugar cane molasses is the only major raw
material for alcohol production. Molasses, which is a byproduct of the sugar
industry, contains about 45�50 percent fermentable sugars. Presently 16
distilleries are in operation with installed alcohol production capacity of 400
thousand tonnes, which require on the order of 1,600 thousand tonnes of
molasses. In Pakistan, the distillery industry normally operates for 250 days
with the alcohol production efficiency of 250 liters (240 Kg) per tonne of
In Pakistan, the average production cost of ethanol is US$
0.1452/liter much closer to Brazil�s production costs of US$ 0.1355/1 and it
exports substantial quantities to the EU. Pakistan has exported around 167.610
thousand tonnes of alcohol during 2006. The average price fetched by exporters
for different grades of alcohol ranged around $560 to $680 per tonne for
different grade of alcohol.
The ease with which this can be fermented into ethanol and
its low price have made this raw material ideal for ethanol production. As a
consequence, no other raw material at present in Pakistan can match the
economics of molasses for ethanol production. However in recent years because
of a jump in molasses prices and limitation on molasses availability, ethanol
production has been greatly affected in Pakistan.
In addition to this, the government of Pakistan is an making
effort to introduce ethanol into gasoline, which will boost its domestic
consumption. Pakistan�s expected consumption of gasoline in the year 2005-06
was estimated around 1.6 million tonnes, hence if the country starts blending
ethanol at the ratio of 10 percent; it will require 160,000 tonnes of ethanol.
The price of sugar is high in Pakistan, therefore, there is
very little possibility of using cane sugar to produce alcohol. This suggest
further research to exploit alternative feedstocks in the future. Promoting ethanol as fuel will require
developing technology to produce it from readily available feedstocks.
In many countries, including the Pakistan, rice and wheat
straw is an abundant byproduct from rice/wheat cropping system (RWS) and can
serve as a low-cost attractive alternative for production of ethanol. The
technologies for converting straw to ethanol have been demonstrated in pilot
plants. Commercial use of rice and wheat straw to produce ethanol faces
significant technical and economic challenges. Its success depends largely on
the development of an environmentally friendly pretreatment procedure, highly
effective enzyme systems for conversion of pretreated wheat straw to
fermentable sugars, and an efficient microorganism to convert multiple sugars
to ethanol. Pretreatment of any lignocellulosic biomass is crucial before
The future economic growth of Pakistan crucially depends on
the long-term availability of sustainable energy resources and improved
performance of the agriculture sector. Given high oil prices in early 2008 and
the heavy dependence of many countries on imported oil, the potential for
producing or importing biomass-derived liquid transportation fuels has awakened
interest in many developing and industrialized countries.
The supply of feedstocks is crucial to the success of the
biofuel strategy. Converting rice and wheat straw to
ethanol has the potential for addressing long term availability of energy
resources and improves performance of agriculture sector. The production of
biofuels from rice-wheat straw could generate economic and environmental
benefits, create additional employment, reduce energy import bills and open up
potential export markets.
Waheed Bhutto is an assistant professor at Dawood College of Engineering and