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19 Jul, 2008 01:02

Russia joins biofuel race

For years, countries dependent on oil have been searching for a viable alternative to petrol. As one of the world's biggest oil producers, Russia has stayed on the sidelines until now, but soaring gasoline prices have prompted companies in Russia to look

Pyotr Svetlichny’s company is about to build two hi-tech biofuel plants – the first of their kind in Russia.

“The first plant will work on corn, and the second on wheat,” says Pyotr Svetlichny, Titan-Kuban director.

Turning corn into fuel is far removed from the traditional practice of South Russia's farmers.

In the 1960s Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev aimed to accelerate corn growth to catch up with America.

But Khrushchev-era agricultural technologies became obsolete and ripe for modern techniques.

The first biofuel plant in Russia is expected to start functioning by the end of 2009.

The Krasnodar region or Kuban – as locals call this land – has been chosen for bioethanol production because of its highly developed agriculture and industrial network.

The fields near the village of Dinskaya are using the latest European technologies.

And even though corn in Krasnodar is grown so far only for food, it will be easy for local farmers to switch to different kinds of corn for fuel.

As for the demand for biofuel in Russia, scientists say it is insignificant and nowhere near the demand for fossil fuels.

“To begin with, in Russia the need for the manufacture of bioethanol as a component of petrol is not great. Now I estimate it at approximately 2 million tonnes a year and this figure will hardly change in the years to come, because it's connected with volumes of oil production and processing,” says Vladimir Vinokurov, professor from Gubkin University.

Biofuel producers also have to consider the legal ramifications of their product.

Bioethanol is 99 per cent alcohol and falls under current government alcohol regulations. If it is not exempted under Russian laws, domestic biofuel may become unprofitable.

Pyotr Svetlichny says there also has to be a stricter environmental policy for biofuel to capture the public's attention.

And Russian bioethanol may be in high demand abroad if there is enough support for the idea.

“As to prospect of this market for export in Europe, I see big opportunities here. First of all, Russia has always been an agricultural country and of course expansion of sowing space and yields' increasing are relevant problems at present,” says Vinokurov.