Blended auto fuel

A GOVERNMENT DECISION to encourage the use of ethanol as a blending agent with gasoline made some months ago has a number of positive implications still. Its implementation has acquired a certain sense of urgency. Oil prices are on the rise globally. There is a serious talk of building up an oil reserve. At present, more than 70 per cent of the country's energy requirements are met through imports. A search for solutions that would minimise even by a small extent the financial burden of imports as well as be environmentally acceptable is therefore highly relevant. Ethanol is a renewable source of energy available indigenously. It can replace certain carcinogenic additives that are currently used in automobile fuel. Experts say that the ethanol-petrol blend will be a viable alternate fuel at least in some parts of the country. In the first phase, it is proposed to introduce the automobile fuel blended with 5 per cent of ethanol in eight States. A few pilot projects are coming up across the country.

The true significance of the proposal however extends beyond energy security. Ethanol can be manufactured from practically any major agricultural crop but in India its primary source will be from molasses, an important by-product of the sugar industry. Not surprising, therefore, the sugar mills are among the strongest supporters of the proposal. Currently, the sugar industry is in a state of flux even as it is being decontrolled substantially. Saddled with high priced excess stocks, which cannot be sold globally except at a loss, the industry cries for radical solutions. Among the measures contemplated to revive the industry are encouraging co-generation (using bagasse) and the production of ethanol as a passenger fuel additive. The sugar industry in India can no longer count on sugar alone for its sustenance. In fact, some of the progressive sugar manufacturers had embarked on massive co-generation that made them resemble a two-product company. If the ethanol-gasoline blend proves to be popular, the economics of the sugar industry should improve. Less certain will be its impact on other users of ethanol, notably the industrial alcohol segment.

Fortunately there is a wealth of data from other countries which should be reassuring. Tried out in the U.S. and Europe during the Second World War and now being strongly advocated in the European Union, it is however the Brazilian experience with its "gasohol" that is often cited to buttress the case in India. Like India, Brazil is a large sugar producer. Ethanol is almost entirely produced there from sugarcane as it will be in India on a large scale when the proposal takes off. Brazil has legally mandated an automobile fuel blend with ethanol content being as high as 20 to 24 per cent. Besides, it has a system of financial incentives to popularise its usage. Current versions of the internal combustion engine used in India can run without modification on a mixture with 25 per cent ethanol content. The actual proportion contemplated is much less.

The success of this experiment will hinge largely on how successfully the pilot schemes are implemented. The procedural aspects will naturally have to be devised in a foolproof manner taking into account our own peculiar circumstances. The Government will have to determine the pricing that will be equitable. If successful, the scheme will lead to an increased demand for sugarcane. Will increased cane cultivation come at the expense of other crops, even food crops? Also, while the sugar industry will be able to exploit its potential more comprehensively, it is to be seen whether its more traditional consumers of sugar will be rewarded.

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