Recently the Prime Minister made a statement that large scale planting of trees would be started for making firewood easily and cheaply available all over the country. A proper nation wide agro-forestry project should considerably reduce the demand for cooking gas from the villages.
But modern kitchens cannot use firewood. They have to depend on gas or electricity. Both are costly. Cooking gas supplies are not consistent in several places. Power cuts often interfere with household functions. There is an effective alternative for these fuels. It has been around for some time but did not catch on because of the switchover to gas and electricity in urban areas, and cheap availability of firewood in villages.
I am talking about bio briquettes and pellets. Almost all solid wastes can be used to make these either separately or in combination. It seems that in Thailand even water hyacinth is used for green fuel briquettes. But here I am talking mainly of coconut pith.
When coconut husk is thrashed to extract the coir fibre, the pith falls off or is removed. This is also called coconut dust or cocopeat. It is estimated that India is left with about one million tons of this material every year. Some of it is used by nurseries and in agriculture for soil conditioning and moisture retention. A small quantity is exported.
Coconut pith has good BTU. The heat it produces when burned is high. A couple of decades back Sri Lanka started producing briquettes by compressing the pith using lime as the binder. These were actually disc shaped. I think the project was partly financed by Swedfund. But it failed because there was no demand. People were switching over to gas cooking. Now the wheel has turned a full circle in India and the search is for cheaper cooking fuels.
The Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA) has financed some briquette projects. It is doubtful whether any of them has really succeeded. The technology and machinery used by them seem to be inefficient. This is an area which can be improved without much difficulty. IREDA should undertake technology up gradation projects in collaboration with competent organizations.
The final product that is required is clean, easy to handle briquettes which can be neatly packed. It could be sold by a pushcart men and in supermarkets. The briquette should be easy to ignite, smokeless and give good flame. The stove should be able to control the temperature and blend with the rest of a modern kitchen. I believe that low cost stoves that meet the requirements have been developed by the Appropriate Technology Center of the Central Philippine University in Iloilo City.
It is possible to design also portable equipments for making briquettes or pellets or have area wise fixed facilities. These machines would also be able to process unwanted materials like groundnut shells, rice husk, sawdust, wood chips, waste paper, dry leaves and Municipal solid waste. How to make them usable for cooking is to be studied. At least they can be utilized for bonfires in winter.
Making quality coconut pith briquettes can be good business now. The capital outlay is low. Financing would be available from IREDA and other organizations. The Coir Board, I am sure, would be happy to help. It would be a great national service as well. There are two clear advantages – provide cheap cooking facility and prevent or reduce the accumulation of waste materials.
Let India move into the briquette burning era.