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There’s money to be made in ‘blue sky’

Monday, 16 July 2007 - 11:04am IST

From conglomerates like the Tatas and Reliance to smaller players like Epic Energy, jatropha, or bio-diesel, is fast becoming the buzzword

MUMBAI: Call it a blessing from the blue. Companies, big and small, are turning to jatropha cultivation in a big way, as the search for ‘blue-sky’ technologies gather pace.
From conglomerates like the Tatas and Reliance to smaller players like Epic Energy, jatropha, or bio-diesel, is fast becoming the buzzword. Spurring them and others is the booming automobile industry.

Tata Chemicals, the fertiliser and soda ash maker from the Tata group, is readying a set of new businesses that they call a “third cluster of offerings based on new technology”.
The company, which is steeped in smokestack “old world, old technology businesses,” wants the new platform to make a clean break from the past, even as it continues to expand its soda ash and fertiliser businesses.

Just what are those new technology businesses that the over Rs 4,100 crore Tata Chemicals is entering?

It has set up an innovation centre that has zeroed in on biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Tata Chemicals, which also owns soda ash and sodium bi-carbonate manufacturing operations in the Netherlands, the UK and Morocco expect the new technologies to throw up “interesting and exciting possibilities.”

Tata Chemicals is betting on 17 scientists they hired, who include nanotechnologists and biotechnologists, molecular and bioengineering experts to work in the Centre. Over time, the centre will have 50 scientists.

Tata Chemicals is not alone. Reliance Industries, Reliance Energy, Tata Motors, Suzlon Energy and many others like Asian Electronics, Praj Industries, KS Oils and Epic Energy are fast moving towards identifying opportunities in this space.

Tata Chemicals, in their management discussion and analysis, revealed that while their scientists explore the blue-sky options, they are also encouraged to look at existing products and technologies and seek out new line extensions and processes.

“These are akin to the two ends in the centre of a “bell curve,” where domain expertise really lies. The innovation centre’s focus would be to develop products and processes through the application of bio and nano technologies.

The centre will enable the processes to make bio-diesel and bio-ethanol. It will also help discover processes to make nano materials, bio-materials and advanced and smart materials. It will also endeavour to make alternate sources of energy and water purification.

The company will be setting up its first bio-ethanol plant in Maharashtra, with an investment of Rs 50 crore and a capacity of 30 kilo litres per day. It will initially use conventional technologies for the bio-fuel plant, but would later leverage on new technologies that come out of its R&D facility in Pune.

Epic Energy, a small Mumbai-based company, also plans to cultivate bio-diesel (jatropha) in a big way. Reliance Industries has also kick-started moves to own corporate farms that will grow jatropha and pongamia pinna.

Specialising in energy conservation, bio-fuels and solar energy products, Epic’s main income is from saving energy for its clients through energy- saving equipment. It derives 60% of its turnover from this and the rest from the sale of solar products.

Meanwhile, LT Overseas has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Madhya Pradesh to plant jatropha on 20,000 hectares of wasteland.

The company has also tied up with a European company for its biodiesel programme and plans to enter into the processing of jatropha in a couple of years.

K S Oils is also drawing plans to begin jatropha plantation and has applied to the MP government to allow it to grow jatropha in an area of about 50,000 hectares.

Analysts aver that jatropha cultivation has spread across the eastern and southern states. West Bengal, Manipur, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have made a head-start in addition to Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The Emami Group, the maker of face creams, plans to commence commercial production of bio-diesel by the end of this calendar year.

The bio-diesel plant, spread over 25 acres, is the first-of-its-kind in eastern India and will require an investment of Rs 150 crore. The plant will have an initial production capacity of 1 lakh tonnes per annum. De Smet Engineering Private Ltd, a group company of Desmet Ballestra, an Italian-Belgian joint enterprise, will provide technical assistance to set up the plant.

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