Improving decision-making ability stakeholders
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Waste Management Expo 2020 MAR 12&13 BIEC, Bengaluru, India

Improving decision-making ability for stakeholders

12:09 PM, 11th November 2019
Professor Yogendra Shastri, Chemical Engineering department, IIT Bombay

In an interview, Professor Yogendra Shastri, Chemical Engineering department, IIT Bombay shares his views regarding sustainable solutions for the agrochemicals and agricultural supply chains segment. He also notes ways in which his research can help support the decision-making ability for the corporate and even farmers.

Green chemistry trends in agrochemicals.

The global crop protection chemicals markets is expected to be valued at more than $70 billion in 2021. A significant portion of this is going to be in Asia-Pacific region. A report by FICCI in 2014 had predicted the value of Indian crop protection industry to be $7.1 billion by 2018 with more than 50 percent being exported. The top crop protection chemical in the Indian market is insecticide. India’s pesticides market is growing at an estimated CAGR of over 9 percent by value. While the current market is dominated by synthetic chemicals, the demand for biobased chemicals is rising fast. Many companies are improving the operations to achieve better environmental performance. However, they could still be producing synthetic chemicals. Simultaneously, and perhaps more importantly, the production of chemical that is “green” throughout its entire life cycle is gaining more importance.

Potential for agricultural supply chains.

Agriculture is increasingly connected to global markets, through globally integrated agricultural supply chains. The agricultural supply chains in India though are still not very efficient. Our farmers suffer due to poor connectivity, lack of timely services, and lack of efficient preservation options. Similar situation, with some variations, exists in other Asia Pacific markets. In that context, there is tremendous growth potential for agricultural supply chains in India and Asia Pacific. We need to take advantage of novel technologies such as blockchain, radio frequency tagging and so on to make supply chains more efficient. Another important aspect is the development of food processing facilities closer to farms for perishable products such as fruits and vegetables. There is a lot of scope to develop such food processing parks in the future.

Sustainability practices for agrochemicals.

We are already seeing several harmful effects of using conventional crop protection chemicals, such as water quality problems in Punjab and loss of lives due to exposure to pesticides in Maharashtra. Contamination of water due to agro chemicals affects wider population. Therefore, the importance of adapting green and sustainable chemicals and manufacturing processes is obvious. It has direct implication on saving human lives. Moreover, agricultural land also needs to be protected from degradation and desertification. Harsh chemicals often provide short term benefits but degrade the land, further promoting use of chemicals. This, therefore, becomes a self-propagating cycle. We require development of crop protection chemicals that will also protect the soil and its inherent diversity.

Green chemistry can help in developing such products through innovations. This can be done through development of novel formulations using benign chemicals. There is also a school of thought that for a chemical to be green, it must be produced from plant based material. We can also explore integrated pest management strategies that integrated green chemicals with cultural, physical, and biological methods of crop management. Additionally, better manufacturing processes using approaches of flow chemistry, biocatalysis, and biomimicry will help the agricultural sector. 

Research on ‘Green Chemistry for Agro Chemicals.’

My research studies the environmental and human health impacts of agro chemicals. We use life cycle assessment (LCA) to understand the long term and indirect impacts of use of these chemicals. The analysis can identify the trade-off between use of chemicals and productivity increase. The results also provide guidelines to select greener and sustainable options. Our research also studies the conversion of agricultural residue to value added chemicals, which is typically not considered under the topic of agro-chemicals. We identify the most desirable chemicals that can be produced from agricultural residue such as sugarcane bagasse using economic and environmental criteria. This can help in improving the economic feasibility of agriculture in India and also determine greener routes for these chemicals.

Biochemical processes to produce agrochemicals.

One of the most promising biochemical processing route is through biocatalysis. Chemical catalysis, although commercially viable, requires high temperatures and pressures, and overall harsh conditions. Biocatalysis, on the other hand, takes advantage of processes perfected by nature. These catalysts work at ambient conditions and reduce/eliminate formation of side products. They are also often highly selective. This leads to reduction in separation and purification requirements. Therefore, use of biocatalysis for producing agro chemicals must be explored.

Idea of developing a novel process to produce hydrogen.

Hydrogen is an important feedstock for agro chemicals and is also a potential energy source. We (in collaboration with Prof. Akshat Tanksale from Monash University, Australia) have developed a novel process to produce hydrogen from microalgae through gasification route. Our process, with a novel catalyst that has been patented, produces syngas with more than 60 percent hydrogen (by weight). Moreover, the process does not produce tar. We have performed detailed techno-economic assessment of the proposed process. The payback period is about 7 years with 7 percent IRR considering Rs. 325 /kg market price of hydrogen. We also performed detailed life cycle analysis of the process and the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions is 9.41 kg of CO2 eq. per kg of hydrogen. This is 21 percent less than hydrogen produced using steam reforming of methane. Our analysis has, therefore, indicated that the new process has commercialization potential with concurrent environmental benefits.

Research on agrochemicals and agricultural supply chains.

We are working on two different topics related to agricultural supply chain, both using model based optimization as the approach. The first topic focuses on designing supply chain of agricultural residue for production of liquid transportation fuel (ethanol). In the Indian context, this is a very challenging problem since we have highly distributed availability of a variety of feedstock.

Moreover, our agriculture is highly susceptible to vagaries of nature such as droughts and floods. One of the novel aspects of our work is to consider these possible disruptions in designing the supply chain. The second topic of interest for us is the supply chain of grains to reduce post-harvest losses. We are working on wheat and determining the optimal strategies to reduce post-harvest losses between farm and consumer. These strategies comprise of identifying godown locations, their sizes and modes of storage as well as detailed distribution chain of wheat collected at Mandis.

Plans for future research.

One of the main issues related to agriculture in India is water quality and quantity. Green chemistry is developing new crop protection chemicals that have lower environmental impacts. However, we also need to study the post-application fate of these chemicals. Many chemicals are applied in excess and end up polluting water bodies. We plan to study this aspect in the future by looking at the impact of various crop cultivation practices on local water quality. This falls under the broader area of food-water nexus.

Creating a decision support system for the corporate sector.

Our work can provide a detailed decision support system for selecting chemicals and products considering environmental and economic factors. The model based tools we are developing, both for life cycle assessment and supply chain optimization, are customized for Indian agricultural sector, and those can be useful for the corporate sector.

Facing data challenges in research.

One of the main challenges we face in our research is availability and access to ground data. Our work on life cycle assessment and optimization is driven by data such as fertilization and pesticide application rates, variability of yield due to water availability, and allocation of land to various crops. These data are highly region specific and change every year.

Advice for agrochemicals, agricultural supply chain researchers.

Agriculture is a very important sector in India considering the increasing population and per capita food demand. One of the important challenges that needs to be addressed is developing greener options for crop protection. This must be done while also ensuring that the crop yields do not reduce and total food production is increased.

Another very important challenge is the availability of water. Developing crop hybrids with low water requirement will allow us to address expected climate change impacts. It will also be important to address the food-energy-water nexus. Another area that goes beyond chemistry based research is making the tools available to farmers for better decision making. Tools are being developed for industries to select greener solvents and reagents.

Similar tools are needed for farmers. Such tools can take advantage of recent progress in data analytics, informatics, and mobile connectivity to provide real time decision support to farmers. These tools can also help in reducing losses due to weather events and supply-chain disruptions.

Research related to addressing solid waste issues.

We work in comparing the various options to manage municipal solid waste (MSW) using costs, environment, and human health as the criteria. We have previously shown that landfilling is the cheapest option of managing MSW but it also leads to much higher environmental and human health impact. In contrast, local composting of wet waste, and landfilling or pyrolysis of dry waste provides greater benefits. Our research provides municipal corporations a systematic way to assess these options and recommend policies.

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