Delhi India road traffic

View from India: Flex-fuel vehicles drive green demand

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Following the recent launch of India's first flexi-fuel car that can run on 100 per cent ethanol, the country expects to see growth in the uptake of this type of vehicle.

Automobile major Toyota recently unveiled the Corolla Altis FFV-SHEV (Flexi-Fuel Strong Hybrid Electric Vehicle). The new variant has a flex-fuel engine and an electric powertrain, a combination that is said to enable better use of ethanol and greater fuel efficiency as it can travel for quite some time in EV mode.

Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, has urged car makers to develop flex-fuel compliant engines for their forthcoming portfolio. Flex fuel is when regular petrol combines with either methanol or ethanol and is stored in the same tank as the fuel that is used by the engine. The ethanol-petrol blend can be adjusted, but the common ratio could be that of 85 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent petrol.

Ethanol could be described as a derivative of biomass left by agricultural feedstocks like corn, sugarcane, potato and rice. It has become a sought-after fuel the world over because it can lower pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulphur, carbon and nitrogen oxides. The government is targeting 20 per cent ethanol blending in petrol by 2025 (known as the E20 programme). Accordingly, a significant portion of sugar produce will be allocated for ethanol production.

In 2021, NITI Aayog – the apex public policy think tank of the Government of India – published the report 'Roadmap for Ethanol Blending in India 2020-25'. As per the report, India’s net import of petroleum was 185Mt (megatons) at a cost of $551bn in 2020-21. Most of the petroleum products are used in transportation, therefore a successful E20 programme can save the country $4bn per annum. As well as this, ethanol is a less polluting fuel and offers equivalent efficiency at a lower cost than petrol.

E20 is not just a national imperative, but also an important strategic requirement. To think of it, several factors favour ethanol production, beginning with the availability of arable land. The increased production of food grains and sugarcane leading to surplus is another highlight; this opens up the floor for innovative technology to produce ethanol from plant-based sources and make it feasible for vehicles to be compliant with ethanol-blended petrol.

The energy demand in our country is rising due to an expanding economy, growing population, increasing urbanisation, evolving lifestyles and rising spending power. NITI Aayog outlines that about 98 per cent of the fuel requirement in the road transportation sector is currently met by fossil fuels and the remaining 2 per cent by biofuels. India imports 85 per cent of its oil requirement. This is an opportunity to enhance the usage of domestic biofuels, which can also help generate employment. The production of domestic biofuels may align with the government’s vision of Make in India. It may even improve farmers’ incomes and promote Waste to Wealth generation.

Ethanol is one of the principal biofuels naturally produced by the fermentation of sugars by yeasts or via petrochemical processes such as ethylene hydration. The task force on the sugarcane and sugar industry has estimated that sugarcane and paddy combined are using 70 per cent of the country’s irrigation water, depleting water availability for other crops. Hence there is a need for a change in crop pattern to reduce dependence on one particular crop and to move to more environmentally sustainable crops for ethanol production. Cereals, particularly maize, and second-generation biofuels with suitable technological innovations offer promise of a more environmentally benign alternative feedstock for production of ethanol.

Flex fuel could impact the vehicle manufacturer. Engines and components will have to be tested and calibrated with E20 as fuel. In order to take this forward, a vendor ecosystem will have to be in place for the procurement of additional components compatible with E20. While the assembly line may not have to undergo any change, all components can be made available in the country. Coming to the component manufacturer, there may not be major structural change in the components in migrating from E10 to E20; however, there could be changes in material of piston rings, piston heads, O-rings, seals and fuel pumps.

Besides being carbon neutral and renewable, flex fuel can reduce dependence on oil imports. Another advantage is that flex-fuel-engine vehicles can run on more than one type of fuel or a blend. Though flex fuel is sustainable, it requires a specifically designed engine; flex fuel could damage the engines of petrol cars as they may not have the necessary components to run on this alternate fuel.  

We could now see a drive in demand for flex-fuel vehicles, which is good news for initiating flex fuel set-ups.

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