According to reports, even as Indian policymakers explored options to reduce ballooning fuel bills that were raising the country’s current account deficit and exchange rates, scientist G K Suryaprakash was busy completing his award-winning work, which, if pursued seriously, could resolve the globe’s energy issues. In November, India-born Suryaprakash, who teaches at the University of Southern California, Dornsife, was awarded the $1-million Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in Alternative Fuels for Transportation. He shared it with his Nobel laureate mentor and colleague George Olah. Their proposal to use methanol to replace fossil fuels and petroleum-based feedstock has caught the interests of some Indian states, as well as the Tatas and Reliance, Suryaprakash tells N Sundaresha Subramanian during a recent visit to Allahabad. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about your work, which won you the prestigious prize that has come to be known as the “Energy Nobel” in Israel.
We believe once we run out of oil and gas, it will be a simple solution for mankind. We call it a KISS concept — keep it simple, silly. When you talk about global warming issues, carbon dioxide (Co2) is seen as the biggest culprit. But you can’t just ban it. Without Co2, there is no life on Earth. Human beings are tied to the carbon cycle. But there is an imbalance in the atmosphere due to excessive Co2 emission because of burning fossil fuel. The way to go is ‘recycle Co2’. It is called carbon capture and recycling. We want to make methanol from carbon dioxide. It is the simplest carbon compound and can be a viable alternative to fossil fuels. You can do all you do (with fossil fuels), with methanaol. Mankind can do it for ever, as long as the Sun is shining. That’s the idea.
If it’s so simple, why has no one done it yet?
Humankind is not mostly reactive. It always reacts to crisis. China is doing it because it has no other choice. It has coal; it converts it into methanol. That is a huge market. Israel is adopting it. They found lot of natural gas in the Mediterranean. They have instituted this prize which we won recently, which is known as the Nobel Prize for alternative fuel.
Is this technology viable today?
It is viable. In Iceland, we are doing it. We are taking geothermal steam and water and making 10 tonnes of methanol a day. The George Olah Renewable Methanol plant is named after my Nobel laureate colleague.
How is India placed to make use of this concept?
India can start it. India has a lot of dry biomass — coconut parts and bagasse, which come from sugar cane husk. We can easily gassify it. Such activities are going on in Sweden, Norway, etc. India can benefit from this. It should do it in a distributive fashion. In a small fashion, locally; then, you can consume the fuel you produce.
But currently, India is grappling with debates over the usage of another alternative fuel, ethanol.
In my view, ethanol is not sustainable; it affects food security. Even the US converts 40 per cent of its valuable corn crop into bioethanol. It is unsustainable. Because of that, cheese and wheat prices have risen in third-world countries.
Has the Indian government shown any interest in the methanol economy?
The Indian government hasn’t shown much interest. But the Karnataka government has. There is an organisation in Karnataka that is looking for sustainable fuel; that has shown interest.
Some corporate groups in India are showing interest in methanol.
The Tatas and the Ambanis have read our book ‘Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy’. I had dinner with (Reliance Industries chief) Mukesh Ambani in the big house he has built in Mumbai. He showed an interest. But they come from a petrochemical background; they are business people. They want to see profits. Methanol may not bring you money right away. It is good for the environment.
In the long run, we will make money. I am not interested in making money.
How long is this long run?
Probably, we will convert coal to methanol. China is already doing it. You can stop importing oil. It is good for India; it saves valuable foreign exchange. In the long run, India has this solar potential. You can use that energy to make methanol. It is a flexible concept. Each country, depending on its situation, can make use of it and save money.
How will this distributive model work? Doesn’t it need a government push?
India does well in spite of its government policy. Having said that, this has to happen in a local way. Some people can collect biomass; a small investment can be made in a gassifier. Once you set up a gassifier, it is very easy to make methanol.
Isn’t some kind of a stimulant needed?
There are a lot of sustainable organisations. They can take it up. I would prefer (at the) state level. There is a lot more commitment. The Centre just puts the money and walks away, right? That is not a good idea. I think state governments are a better bet. If local people are not involved, forget it. It’s not going to happen.