Our Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, recently made a statement that India has reached the 10% ethanol blending target for India well before schedule. He has also mentioned that we have been able to reduce carbon emissions by 27 lakh tonnes and Rs. 41,000 crores of forex reserve by doing so. Now before jumping on to the significance of achieving this target, let’s quickly understand how ethanol is produced and how ethanol blending works.
Ethanol production in India
There are various methods to produce ethanol, but in India, it is mainly produced from sugarcane-based raw materials, molasses, sugarcane juice, maize, and surplus rice with FCI. The sugars are fermented by yeast or by petrochemical processes to naturally produce ethanol. To explain further, the sugars(in the form of glucose, fructose and sucrose) are fed to the yeast which breaks it down to ethanol and carbon dioxide through its enzymes. Ethanol is also referred to as a first-generation biofuel.
History of ethanol being used as a fuel
You’ll be surprised to know that the first instance of ethanol being used to power an engine was in 1826 in the US. Nicolaus Otto, who’s the inventor of the modern four-cycle internal combustion engine used ethanol to fully power an engine in 1876. But as it came under the category of liquor it was highly taxed to pay off war-related activities by the government of the United States at that time. But why did the world decide to use petrol and diesel and not ethanol as a fuel to power engines? Let’s have a look.
Ethanol vs Fossil fuels
Simply put, 1L of ethanol contains lesser energy than 1L of petrol. There’s approximately 30% less energy in a tank full of ethanol as compared to that of petrol. Now coming to emissions – well, the carbon dioxide emitted by burning ethanol as a fuel is counterbalanced by the carbon dioxide that is captured by the crops when they are grown to produce ethanol. For petrol or diesel, no such emissions are counterbalanced as they are refined from crude oil found on earth. The higher oxygen content in ethanol also makes it cleaner and greener when it burns.
The first-ever produced car to fully run on ethanol was the 1979 Fiat 147 which was launched after three years of testing. Now coming to why people chose petrol and diesel over ethanol? Well, there are 2 reasons – 1)low supply of raw materials to produce ethanol as a fuel at a mass scale and 2)ethanol not having the same amount of energy per litre as petrol or diesel. There’s another problem of cold starting; ethanol doesn’t burn as quickly as petrol so during winter in North India it might be a severe problem to start a pure ethanol-powered car. Now coming to the next question? Does ethanol blending in petrol solve anything?
A brief on ethanol blending
Fundamentally, engines are designed according to the fuel type. You can’t put petrol in a diesel engine tank as it’ll damage it and vice versa. Similarly, you can’t just mix ethanol and petrol in any quantity as it may damage the engine. In the US and Europe, the ethanol fuel mixtures are generally referred to as E”numbers” which represent the percentage of ethanol in the mixture; for example, E10 would refer to 10% ethanol and 90% petrol etc.
The main objective of blending is to reduce emissions without damaging the car engines. It is said that a 5% blend is fine for the engines but a 10% blend can have certain adverse impacts. The increase in the amount of ethanol can damage some plastic, aluminium, rubber components which in turn could affect the durability of pipes, hoses and injectors etc. Manufacturers usually mention whether their products can run on ethanol, for example, Honda has mentioned that its cars can run on E10 fuel.
Reducing emissions is just one aspect of the story, the Government of India wants to significantly reduce its import bills of oil and hence they are exploring all sorts of processes to facilitate this change. Wary of the adverse effects of ethanol on existing engines, the government is pushing hard for manufacturers to expedite the production of flex engines. Flex engines can run on any ratio of an ethanol-petrol mix; be it 10% or 85% or be it run on purely petrol or ethanol. Now let’s look at how India has faired in its blending journey so far.
Mapping India’s Ethanol Blending Journey
Ethanol blending is nowhere a recent practice in India. It first started as a pilot in 2001 and the Ethanol Blended Programme (EBP) was launched in 2003. The programme used 5% ethanol blending and only 20 states and 4 UTs came under this programme. It faced a range of challenges, most predominantly being high taxation, procurement hurdles, irregular pricing, availability of raw materials etc.
Several measures were taken to tackle these issues when Prime Minister Modi came to power in 2014. In December 2014, the government reintroduced administered price mechanism for ethanol procurement i.e. it set a fixed price of Rs. 48.5-49.5 for ethanol to be purchased by the OMCs inclusive of all taxes and duties. Other measures included simplifying the tendering process and allowing the conversion of B heavy molasses, sugarcane juice and damaged food grains to ethanol. Finally, in 2019, the government revitalized the EBP programme by extending it to the rest of India except the UTs of the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
These measures did play a role in boosting the adoption of ethanol blending which can be seen in the graph below:
Reaching the 10% ethanol blending in petrol target
The government had already set a target to reach the 10% blending target in the 2021-22 supply year (Dec to Nov) and reaching it before its schedule is definitely a feat but there’s more to it. The government has also set a blending target of 20% by 2025. Achieving such targets shouldn’t take our focus away from the challenges and the overall strategy for reducing carbon emissions.
The road ahead for fuel blending in India
Ethanol blending in petrol has increased farmers’ income by Rs. 40,600 crores over the last 8 years. But to understand the actual value of blending ethanol in fuel we need to look at other aspects as well. Most importantly we need to evaluate the future goals of the EBP keeping in mind the rapid adoption of EVs in India.
Is it worth all the hype then?
The increase in the percentage of blending may not be a great way forward for many reasons. Firstly, as the blending percentage goes up, the incompatibility with current fuel engines rises. It doesn’t make sense to retrofit current vehicles to adopt a new fuel which has less fuel efficiency. The customers will not be satisfied by such a change fundamentally.
Secondly, in our aims to reduce fuel emissions, the role of ethanol may just be transitionary. Our main goal is to achieve a fully electric mobility ecosystem and thus all the investment and infrastructural changes to support the blending program may be questionable. Of course, ethanol blending will reduce emissions but the costs to reduce emissions will also be significantly high as seen.
The only way to make sure that this plan goes through would be to push car companies to adopt flex engines. Moreover achieving the 20% blending target by 2025 would require a supply of around 1000 Crore Litres of ethanol which is 333% higher than the 2020-21 supply. No doubt it will boost the farmers’ income by buying feedstock from them and also reduce some emissions, but the government needs to sincerely weigh the benefits against the proposed infrastructural and logistical changes.
Overall, ethanol blending is a great idea in its current 10% blending form which is already compatible with the current engines which do not need newer engines to be built to accommodate a higher grade E20 fuel with lesser fuel efficiency. With EV adoption growing significantly, the government may be reevaluating the push for E20 and flex engines.