Monday, July 03, 2006

A whole lot of gas

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Anand Karve wins the Ashden Award for an innovative biogas plant

Shevlin Sebastian

His office is spartan: a table, some chairs, an almirah and walls that are bare, except for a plaque given by the Entrepreneurs Club of Pune. But the man has a towering presence. At 6’, with broad shoulders, a straight back, a glowing face and piercing eyes, Dr Anand Karve, (70), radiates the energy and confidence of a much younger man.
The founder-president of the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute (ARTI) has every reason to feel on top of the world. The institute has won its second Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy (Food) last week and Karve was present in London to receive a prize of Rs 25 lakhs. Incidentally, the Ashden Awards are regarded as the Green Oscars. The ARTI has won for designing a compact biogas system where food waste, instead of dung, is used to produce gas for cooking.
So what exactly is this award-winning product? For the past hundred years, scientists had the conviction that biogas could only be made from dung. But, to produce one kilo of gas, you need 40 kgs of dung. One day, Karve had a brainwave. “In all the fermentation technologies, sugar is used as a substrate,” he says. “So I fed sugar, instead of dung, and discovered that with one kilo, I was getting the same amount as 40 kgs of dung. It was a Eureka moment.”
Apart from sugar, you can also use food waste like chapattis, rice, fruits or vegetables. But all this waste has to be put into a mixer and ground to a pulp. The reason? “The bacteria, which converts the pulp into biogas, have evolved in the intestines of animals, so they are used to getting their food chewed by somebody else,” says Karve.
So far, the popularity of the bio gas plant has been mostly in the rural areas: 800 biogas plants have been sold so far, mostly through word of mouth. I decided to ask an end user about the product.
Two streets away from the ARTI office, which, by the way, is located in Dhayarigaon, which is several kilometres from Pune, I go and meet Kavita Yadav. She stays in a cream coloured house, with an asbestos roof. Only 23, newly married, and though alone, she still shows me the biogas plant, which is at one corner of the plot. “We have been using it for the past six months,” says Kavita. “It is very good and cheap. All we need to do is to put a kilo of atta (flour) every day. We buy rotten atta from the ration shop at Rs 2 a kg.” She says all the meals are cooked using the biogas. “Except for chapattis, for which I use the LPG stove,” she adds.
Back at the ARTI office, Karve leads me to the back of the building. At some distance away, surrounded by trees and wildly growing grass, there is an open space where all the tanks are stored. To set up a plant, it costs Rs 9000. Two tanks are needed: the 1000 litre tank acts as the fermenter, while the 750 litre tank acts as the gas holder. “The two tanks telescope into each other,” says Karve.
There is a shed nearby and Karve’s assistant, Rahul Wagmare, beckons me in. On a wooden table, there is a stove, and several used matchsticks. Clearly, he has been lighting up to show many visitors. One more match is struck, and the gas bursts into a clear blue flame. It rises much higher than the flame from a LPG gas stove.
“With one kilo of feedstock, you can use it for two hours a day,” says Karve, from the door.
What happens if one has to cook an elaborate meal, with rice and chicken and fish curry?
“If you use the pressure cooker, you will be able to manage,” says Karve. “But if you are cooking in an open pot, it will take much longer. Almost 100 per cent of our clients also have LPG cylinders.”
For flat dwellers in the city, there is one major problem: the plant has to be kept in the sun. “The bacteria comes from the intestines of animals and they are used to operating at a heat of 38 degrees Centigrade,” says Karve. But he is planning to insulate the tanks.
So far, so good. What, then, is the expert opinion? In an e-mail, Sarah Butler-Sloss, Executive Chair of the Ashden Awards, writes: “ARTI’s biogas technology tackles the growing problem of disposing of food waste, which would otherwise be left in the streets. The other impressive aspect is the small amounts of feedstock needed and the rapid production of gas – 48 hours, rather than the 30 or 40 days needed in existing dung-based biogas plants.”
But there are dissenting voices. Says Dr Uday Bhawalkar, director of the Bhawalkar Ecological Research Institute at Pune: “It is a good technology, provided waste food is available. Should the food be eaten or should it be wasted? Should you put more food on your table and then waste it, in order to produce biogas?” It is a question that does not seem to bother Karve or the ARTI. Recently, the Shell Foundation gave Rs 1.83 crore to ARTI to fund a programme called ‘Commericialisation of Bio Mass Based Fuel and Cooking Systems’. The idea is to reach 15 lakh people in Maharashtra by 2009. Is it feasible? “We have a network of 20 NGOs who are working at the grassroots level,” says Karve. “Also, 20 project officers will go all over the state explaining the biogas concept to people.”

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