Interview: Faizur Rehman

Head - Bio2X at Fortum India

We will dedicate the Assam biorefinery to the nation by March next year

May 07, 2022. By Manu Tayal

Our target is by March next year, we will dedicate the Assam biorefinery to the nation... and are expected to source atleast Rs 150 crore to Rs 200 crore worth of bamboo every year for the biorefinery. Also, we are going to provide direct or indirect employment for around 10,000 to 15,000 jobs in Assam in the biomass collection and transportation area. So it’s going to be a huge impact wherever the refineries are going to come. Moreover, we will provide money directly to the people when we will source bamboo, etc in the region, disclosed Faizur Rehman, Head- Bio2X Fortum India and Country Director, Chempolis India, in a candid conversation with Manu Tayal, Associate Editor, Energetica India. Mr. Rehman also discussed about the company’s plans on setting up new projects in the country, investments, key challenges, etc. Here’re the edited excerpts from that interaction:

Que: Kindly shed some light on Fortum’s Bio2X division?

Ans: Fortum’s Bio2X division is an innovative program wherein we try to use biomass as raw material, and we are trying to convert it into more and more sustainable products.

Like in Assam, we are using bamboo as biomass raw material and we are producing ethanol and other chemicals out of that which are going to be sustainable and green.

In this way we are going to do it in the future also like in North East we are using bamboo maybe when we would be setting up our next project, let’s say in the Northern part of the country or in the Southern part of the country we would be using rice straw, wheat straw or bagasse as per the availability of the local area. We would be utilizing that and the target is to produce as much as sustainable as much as carbon neutral products.

Que: Which technology you are using for producing ethanol?

Ans: The technology which we have, or our, associate company Chempolis has is called fractionization, which means we fractionate the biomass… we divide it into the basic chemical properties of the biomass. For example, if we are using rice straw then we will divide the rice straw into hemicellulose, cellulose and lignin, and these are the basic chemical properties. Then whatever products are possible, for example, from cellulose, the first thing that we are producing is Ethanol. However, there are possibilities to make dissolving pulp out of it and then it can be converted into textile fibers or paper manufacturing. So same thing is with hemicellulose.

Que: Do you plan to use Sugarcane also for producing ethanol?

Ans: Sugarcane we can use. But we are not going to use any food grain items. We are going to use the residue of it like bagasse in a sugarcane case because we are trying to segregate ourselves from using those things.

Que: What are the plans for North India?

Ans: There are big plans for North India. We are going to definitely utilize the rice straw which is burned here and creates pollution. So definitely, this is inside the road map.

For the immediate future, I may say, we are planning to have a demo facility because the biomass, which I am talking to you about is huge, and as you know, the country is huge… at every 200 kilometers the characteristic of the biomass gets changed. So when I’m going to utilize let’s say 300,000 tonnes, which means like 100 trucks a day of biomass. Then I want to be very sure that if I purchase for example from Sonipat or Cathal for sourcing my biomass, how it’s going to affect. So for that, I’m going to set up the demo facility in India. That’s my first plan, and for this, we are going to utilize lots of biomass.

In North India, we are planning to use rice straw and maybe in the very near future, we can set up a project for producing ethanol and other products as well.

Que: Will this project be entirely privatized? or will it be in collaboration with government entities as well?

Ans: We are looking for both the opportunities as Assam project is in collaboration with the public sector company Numaligarh Refinery Limited. So we are open for that and so far we are enjoying that… We have done our thing over there and maybe that’s going to be the way forward also.

Que: In the Union Budget 2022-23, the Government announced a new scheme i.e. Prime Minister’s Development Initiative for NorthEast (PMDevINE) with an initial allocation of Rs 1,500 crore. What is your take on this?

Ans: Northeast is going to be a development hub. I’m pretty sure that the government is investing there, it’s the right step. They need to invest more and more over there and I’m pretty sure that it will yield a good result for the development of the country as a whole because the Northeast has a huge potential… as there are lots of minerals available, there is biomass or bamboo available. There are people who are ready and eager to work, so I’m pretty sure this is going to generate more results.

Que: Can you shed some more light on Fortum’s biorefinery project in the Northeast?

Ans: We are in the construction phase right now and planning to Commission this project by next year. We are already in the joint venture (JV) since 2018, and our partners are Numaligarh Refinery Limited… they are 50 per cent owner and 50 per cent is Fortum and Chempolis.

Chempolis is our associate entity, which has the technology and Fortum is the investor or developer.

Que: By when the Assam biorefinery is expected to be commissioned?

Ans: We are working very hard, despite being hit by two big corona waves. However, our target is by March next year, we will dedicate the Assam biorefinery to the nation.

In fact, the Ministry of Petroleum and the Prime Minister’s Office are also very keenly looking at it and we are trying to provide a very good refinery to the nation.

Que: What will be the development possibilities post-commissioning biorefinery, like job prospects, investments, etc in the region?

Ans: We are expected to source at least Rs 150 crore to Rs 200 crore worth of bamboo every year for the Assam biorefinery post-commissioning. Also, we are going to provide direct or indirect employment for around 10,000 to 15,000 jobs in Assam
in the biomass collection and transportation area. So it’s going to be a huge impact wherever the refineries are going to come. Moreover, we will provide money directly to the people when we will source bamboo and other things in the region.

Que: How was your experience in finding the right kind of skilled manpower for the biorefinery project?

Ans: As the biorefinery project has been very challenging because it’s the first of its kind in the world. So finding the right people is a big challenge. But I would like to thank our partner NRL to take up the challenge in the North East. They are the local boys over there. They are doing the job for that. Then we have a collaboration or rather our EPCM, the main contractor for this project is Engineers India Limited (EIL). They have been doing a tremendous job to take this technology from Finland to the world. I think it’s been a very, very tough and challenging project. We have to find out many local solutions in India and find the right kind of fit people, right kind of things to do in this corona time has been very challenging. But when I’m looking for commissioning now, I think it’s like a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s what we can say. All the hard works are going to be getting paid off in near future, so looking forward to that.

Que: How much market share do you expect with ethanol in the near term?

Ans: The Government of India via the Ministry of Petroleum has mandated that oil marketing companies blend ethanol in petrol, up to 10%. They have also mandated 20 per cent ethanol blending by 2025.

As per our meeting with the Ministry and the way, they are talking means you produce and we will take it kind of a scenario.

As Fortum, we are developing the first refinery. As soon as we Commission it, we are definitely going to set the target for us. We want to be a market leader. We are coming with big plans for India for at least Chempolis as India is the home market and we are looking for all the opportunities to grow in India. We have already signed a cooperation agreement with Engineers India Limited also, so we are looking big for India.

Que: What other challenges did you face while working on biofuels in India?

Ans: As such kind of project has not been done before, so when you’re trying to collect, as I mentioned to you, 100 trucks a day kind of biomass this is challenging. Also, it’s very, very challenging to convince the pupil that the rice straw which they are burning right now to just get rid of it has a commercial value, and to make a supply chain out of it is also a big challenge. So once the technical challenge, like if we successfully commercialize this project in Assam, then we can prove that the technology is worth talking about, worth discussing, and worth initiating. Then we need to take up the challenge of collecting the biomass and all those things. So, we will overcome those challenges also.

But it’s different… as there is no supply like crude oil. There is no professional organization. We are going to deal with our own farmers. We are going to take away the rice straw from the waist of their field, so it is going to be challenging, but we have the support of all the government machinery like Agriculture University in Haryana and Punjab they are supporting us. Wherever you go and meet with the government people because the problem is so huge. So, people are willing to support and cooperate on all fronts.

Que: How much awareness you have seen among the masses?

Ans: People are aware and doing it. If you would have noticed in Punjab, there are many people who are doing the bio CNG. So they are taking the rice straw, they are doing the pellets out of it. People know that there is some value, but the volumes of production is so huge that we can set up many more refineries. Like in Assam, when we are going to people talking that we can take away the bamboo and we can give you the price at your backyard, people are interested. People want to know more about it.

Que: How Fortum is spreading awareness among the masses about the initiative?

Ans: We are going to the farmers, we are telling them that we want your bamboo, we will pay you a price, we will collect it, we will harvest it. It is us. But as I mentioned to you, the government support has been tremendous wherever we have approached the government they have provided us with the Road map. They have provided us the guidelines, they’re providing us their people also to help us to convince the local people that this is beneficial for all of them.

Que: What will be your suggestions for the policymakers for boosting the share of biofuels in the country’s energy mix?

Ans: I would say that from our side, and from our technology side, we should not look for one product. We should look at how we can utilize the biomass in totality. Like what we are doing, we are using bamboo and converting it into 90% into some valuable products - it could be ethanol, it could be something else. We should target that way. We should not target the one small requirement, which is like Ethanol is the present requirement. We should see what is possible in every sense so that we should be more open, and then I think we can find more valuable results out of it, more sustainable results. We should look for a long-term perspective.

Que: Why India as compared to other countries for the project?

Ans: This project is going to be the first of its kind, but there are a couple of projects, which have been set up in Europe, and they are doing it. However, the best part with a country like India is that we have huge biomass available. In addition, if you go to Europe, they don’t have that much rice straw, wheat straw, or bamboo available to convert into other products. So it has to be happening in India. The technology is coming from Finland, which is a forerunner in developing these kinds of technologies. They are pulp and Agro-based industry, so they keep inventing all the new things and that’s the advantage we need to take means the technology from Finland and then the execution and the mass production, which is possible in India, we should create a collaboration of these two things.

Que: What will be the company’s growth plans for the next five years?

Ans: I’m looking for a demo plant. I’m trying to set up this technology in India so that we can keep researching. We can develop more and more valuable products. I think it will take another decade or two decades to invent and reinvent ourselves. We definitely have the technology to be executed now, but I think we need not to stop here. We can develop more projects.

Once the Assam project is being Commissioned, I’m going to start the next project very soon in India.

Que: With how much total investment you are planning to set up the next project?

Ans: We are targeting to set up the next project at an estimated cost of approximately Rs 2,000 crore.

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