Turning crop waste into fertilizer could combat air pollution in India

Burning stubble generates large amounts of smoke in the states of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and the Indian capital of New Delhi.

Multiple attempts by the government each year to reduce stubble burning by providing alternative solutions to farmers have largely failed.

Vidyut Mohan, a 30-year-old businessman, may have a solution that would help reduce some of the air pollution and generate income for the locals. Mohan’s company, Takachar, has developed a technology that converts residual biomass into fertilizer.

Takachar has perfected a machine that can be loaded onto the back of a small truck or hitched to a tractor and carried across acres of farmland. Harvest waste is fed into the machine and roasted in a controlled manner that removes pollutants and carbon dioxide emissions, Mohan explained.

“Compared to burning agricultural waste in the open air, our equipment prevents up to 98% of smoke emissions,” said Mohan.

Vidyut Mohan working with his award-winning machine.

After a while, this roasting process produces fertilizer. Takachar intends to collaborate with entrepreneurs across India, who will use the machines to clear fields for farmers and share the profits generated from the sale of fertilizers.

“If the machine is set up correctly, we will get rid of the rice straw, get fertilizer and save money. And it can also decrease smoke,” said Rohtash Hooda, a farmer from Haryana state.

The problem of air pollution in India

In the past decade, India has been struggling to cope with the emerging challenges posed by climate change, as well as to meet the growing demands of a developing economy.

During the COP26 climate talks, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised that the country will achieve net zero emissions by 2070, decades after many other polluting economies.

India has the highest levels of air pollution globally, and its residents would live an average of 5.9 years longer if the country reduced pollution within World Health Organization guidelines, according to the air quality of life index (AQLI), published in an annual report of the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago (EPIC).
The report found that all 1.3 billion residents of India they face annual average pollution levels that exceed the guidelines established by the World Health Organization.
A man walks amid smoggy conditions in New Delhi on January 28, 2021.

The northern states of India, which are mostly agricultural economies, suffer the most, and the burning of rice stubble is a major contributor to pollution in the region.

“When they start to burn, we have trouble breathing. When we are outside, our eyes get wet and there are traffic accidents due to smog,” said Hira Jangra, a 30-year-old farm worker in Haryana. “It feels like we’re suffocating,” he added.

Hope for a solution

Takachar was recently awarded £ 1 million (over $ 1.3 million) as the winner of the Prince William Earthshot Prize.

Mohan and his team have started testing in India and have already launched their prototype in California and Kenya. The latest version is capable of processing different types of biomass waste into activated carbon, which can be used to remove pollutants and for other purification processes, and for which companies are willing to pay a high price.

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Takachar was created to combat climate change by generating marketable products from residual biomass. One of its objectives is to increase the net income of rural communities by 40%.

For now, Mohan is capturing the interest of private companies, as well as the government of India, which has been seeking sustainable and cost-effective solutions to combat the growing threat of air pollution.

“By 2030, we want to impact 30 million farmers around the world directly or indirectly and sell close to 200,000 systems, processing 120 million tons of agricultural and forestry waste annually,” Mohan said.

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