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Fuel for thought

The Zadgaonkars turn carry-bags into petrol!


We rode a Kawasaki Caliber fuelled by plastic! To tell you the truth, only if you are really discerning do you notice a slight rough edge over normal fuel



PLASTIC FANTASTIC Alka has a clean, one-stop solution for waste management and fuel production.

As much as we would like to think otherwise, we seem to be quickly approaching the brink of putting question marks on our existence. What else can you say when your backyard's flooded and your tap's dry? 2005 will surely go down as the year when India's major cities came to their knees, thanks to the monsoons. Sure enough, the finger-pointing process began and countless indicted the ubiquitous plastic bag. Plastic-choked sewers were acting as tributaries rather than drains and governments are making half-hearted efforts to ban plastic bags.

Meanwhile, Alka Zadgaonkar has been putting this disposer's bane to some good use. Like most discoveries, it was chance that made this 44-year-old realise she was on to something. Alka Zadgaonkar, by the way, heads the chemistry department of Nagpur's GH Raisoni College of Engineering. "Something had to be done about plastic disposal," she says. Which takes us back to the December of 1997, when the plastic waste she was processing in her college lab broke down into a brown, translucent liquid - a very raw, unrefined liquid that had fleeting properties of petroleum.

Her premise was based on the logic that plastic, which is made from crude, breaks down into liquid hydrocarbon. In scientific terms, breaking down chemical components is called depolymerisation. So, did no one else think of this before? They did, but Zadgaonkar has devised a depolymerisation method that's least expensive and doesn't require any separation of plastic. Besides, the process yields zero residues.

The liquid she had derived, though pretty much close to petroleum, wasn't quite fit to actually power equipment smoothly. From then on, she worked on the depolymerisation process under various scales of pressure and temperature with alternate conversion periods. With support from husband, Dr Umesh Zadgaonkar, she's devised petrol, diesel and even Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) out of distilling hydrocarbons derived from plastic.

Good enough for the petroleum ministry and the Indian Oil Corporation to sit up and take notice. So much so, the ministry has even promised funding for the project. Several tests by private and government agencies has proved that the fuel has a very low content of sulphur, a lower reaction temperature and better combustibility than conventional petrol and diesel.

Today, I am at The Unique Waste Plastic Management and Research Company - a plant which the Zadgaonkars established in 2004 with a State Bank of India loan. At the heart of it is a reactor where plastic waste is converted into liquid hydrocarbons by random de-polymerisation. Their facility, capable of handling five mega-tonnes of waste a day, supplies fuel to neighbouring industrial units at Rs 30 per litre. In fact, we rode a Kawasaki Caliber fuelled by plastic! To tell you the truth, only if you are really discerning do you notice a slight rough edge over normal fuel. What's also good news is that the fuel has successfully passed PUC tests too.

"Our ultimate aim is to beef up capacity to 450 mega-tonnes, if we are to get anywhere close to supplying fuel on a nationwide scale," says Alka. Their fuel is definitely feasible. In fact, the industrial Buty layout, where the Zadgaonkars' plant is located, generates humungous amounts of plastic waste. So now, they have arranged for all the factories to dump their respective waste at the Zadgaonkars' premises. And in conjunction with the Maharashtra Energy Development Agency, their facility will soon sell their fuel to factories all over the country.

Umesh Zadgaonkar elaborates on the fuel's automobile-powering capabilities, "It has all the properties of motor spirit, better flammability and meets the Bureau of Indian Standards' (BIS) norms. Moreover, we have a couple of vehicles running on our fuel for the last two years."

So what's stopping the `plastic fuel' from powering your car? For starters, the couple are working out a much better calibration that could see the fuel actually improving engine performance over the current fuel used. They are also in the process of trying to completely eliminate olefin, a by-product which could clog up a car's fuel-injectors in the long run.

Nevertheless, that still doesn't detract the numerous gains to be benefited from. Firstly, this process is the best way to get rid of all the unnecessary plastic waste that our civilisation generates. Secondly, it holds a whole plethora of possibilities and opportunities. Ask R Subba Rao, head of department of polymers, Amrita School of Engineering, Coimbatore. "It will straightaway mean saving in our crude import bills. And compared to all other depolymerisation processes, theirs is the least expensive."

And consider this - this process can yield everything from LPG and kerosene, right up to petrol and diesel! The key quotient of attraction however, is the prospect of fuel priced between Rs 20 to Rs 30 a litre. We wish Alka and Umesh Zadgaonkar all the very best in their endeavour!

SRIRAM NARAYANAN

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