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The right mix?

S. Gopikrishna Warrier

Plans are afoot to mix `environment friendly' ethanol in small quantities to unleaded petrol in India.


If the Govt. goes ahead with its plan to mix ethanol with unleaded petrol, pollution in cities can be reduced.

The Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas, Ram Naik, recently announced that the sale of petrol mixed with five per cent ethyl alcohol (ethanol) will be carried out in a phased manner across the country. This announcement can potentially take the project — which was till now limited to a few pockets — to the national platform sometime in the future.

With the Minister himself giving the thrust for ethanol blending, the chances of the project passing through the bureaucratic steeplechase is high. In a signed article published in a couple of national dailies, Naik had written that since India has substantial sugarcane production, the blending can result in more jobs and increased economic activities in villages.

He had compared the Indian situation with Brazil, which is considered the leader in ethanol blending. "Brazil produces 14 billion litres of ethanol from molasses and sugarcane juice against our production of 1.3 billion litres from molasses alone,"

Naik recently informed when he unveiled a three-phase programme:

  • To start with, the sugar industry will provide 400 million litres of anhydrous alcohol, to meet the five per cent mix requirement across the country. The supplies have to be committed through commercial contracts between the sugar and oil industries.

  • The modification of the Bureau of Indian Standards specifications so as to permit ethanol blending up to 10 per cent.

  • To initiate research on mixing ethanol in diesel, since its consumption is seven times that of petrol in the country.

    Unlike in the case of compressed natural gas (CNG), which was introduced as a fuel for public transport vehicles in New Delhi, ethanol-blended-petrol (popularly called gasohol in some countries) does not involve any engine alteration up to 20 per cent. Due to this ability the fuel passes the first hurdle — consumer resistance.

    Technically, ethanol can be used directly as a fuel in specially designed engines. But since it has a higher vaporisation temperature than petrol, a little bit of petrol is required for cold starts. For instance, Sweden markets E85P, a blend of 85 per cent ethanol mixed with 15 per cent petrol, as an alternative fuel for vehicles.

    Brazil, on the other hand, reportedly mandates a blending ratio between 20 and 24 per cent of ethanol. The exact percentage fixed for a particular year depends on the availability and market price of the alcohol.

    Though the environmental discussion on blending ethanol with petrol (and diesel) is not yet complete, as per the present understanding there are more positives than negatives.

    Ethanol has about two-thirds the energy and heat value of petrol, but results in more efficient combustion. So even while more fuel is needed to run the same distance, the emissions are cleaner. When added in small quantities to unleaded petrol, as envisaged in India, it acts as an octane booster, replacing the conventional additive for this purpose — meta tertiary butyl ether — which can create adverse health impacts.

    While carbon monoxide emissions are reduced with alcohol fuels, aldehydes, which irritate the eyes are increased. Studies carried out in Australia report that the tailpipe emissions of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulate matter being lower in vehicles using ethanol.

    When up to 15 per cent of ethanol is blended with diesel and used in unmodified diesel engines, it is known to greatly reduce visible smoke. Smoke and smog are the greatest problems that diesel vehicles cause in congested cities.

    There are two views on the release of carbon dioxide — the principal greenhouse gas. However, even if the argument that ethanol generates more CO{-2} is taken, in the larger picture it is considered a better fuel option than petrol.

    This is because it is a biomass-based fuel, and not a fossil fuel that is drawn out from its underground reserve and brought into the atmosphere. Secondly, the process of replanting sugarcane to make more ethanol absorbs CO{-2}.

    Despite the favourable environmental balance sheet, the ultimate success of gasohol will depend on its economics. In any society the choice of a fuel is based on the price it has to pay for availability and technology.

    Since ethanol blending at five per cent does not require engine modifications, the consumer need not make any investment, upfront, to switch over the new fuel. The case, however, is not the same for either the sugar or the petroleum industry.

    The sugar mills that have distilleries will need additional investment to set up processes that give almost water-free alcohol — more than 99.5 per cent pure. At present, the average purity obtained is around 94.5 per cent.

    To make this investment, the sugar industry should be sure that the market for its produce would be consistent. In other words, the sale of blended petrol should be made mandatory by the government.

    The oil companies, which buy petrol from refineries and distribute to petrol stations, have to set up additional facilities at their depots.

    In addition to blenders, they would need investment to set up separate tanks and pipelines. Since ethanol has a high affinity for water, the depots would require equipment to keep it anhydrous.

    At the crux, then, would be the price at which the sugar industry sells ethanol to oil companies. If this transfer price agreed upon unfairly hurts either of the two parties, or involves long-term government subsidy, there would be a cloud over the project's sustainability.

    Ram Naik himself states this in his article: "I must caution here that the price of ethanol supplied by the sugar industry would be very crucial for the success of the programme.

    The programme cannot survive on the basis of subsidies, which have been discontinued in Brazil. The price of ethanol supplied has to match the landed price of petrol with reasonable transportation to the oil companies' depots."

    Worse still, if to prevent hurting the interests of either of the two industries or the government, a price hike is passed on to the consumer, then there would be an adverse response from him. Naik would need to walk a rather tricky tightrope, and ensure that the parties find the right transfer price, to make his project a reality.

    Feedback can be sent to warrier@thehindu.co.in

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