Flex Fuels: BF or BS?
I am a great admirer of Nitin Gadkari.
I love his perennial smile. 
I applaud the speed at which he is building roads, using esoteric materials such as plastic, slag and even coconut fibre. 
I like to hear him talking about fuels that will be “import-substitute, cost-effective, environment-friendly and indigenous.”
Recently, Mr Gadkari dismissed green hydrogen as a 'sapna' (dream), pretty much what I had written in my article on green hydrogen.
Time for a look at Mr Gadkari’s own ‘sapna’ – flex-fuel.
He talks of replacing fossil fuels (FF) with bio-fuels (BF), thus, saving the country Rs16 lakh crore in oil imports and boosting the prosperity of India’s ‘urja-data’ farmers.
Really? This needs to be understood.
The underlying so-called ‘facts’ behind this are:
  • BF has zero emissions—totally non-polluting.
  • BF is much cheaper than FF.
  • BF is indigenous and produced by farmers.
  • BF can replace FF and cut down our fuel imports.
We have started using BF already. India is currently on E10—10% ethanol (ethyl alcohol) in petrol. The target for E20 (20% ethanol) is 2025. The ultimate blend (too early to call it 'Mr Gadkari’s choice') seems to be E85. 
Check out the numbers...
  • In February 2023, India consumed 2.8mn (million) tonnes of E10 petrol which (presumably) included about 0.3mn tonnes of ethanol. E20 will require about 0.6mn tonnes of ethanol per month, or about 7mn tonnes pa (per annum).
  • Ethanol is also needed by the industry as a solvent and for the synthesis of organic chemicals which consumes about 3mn tonnes pa.
  • Production of ethanol will reach 10mn tonnes a year by December 2023.
So, there is enough ethanol to go around as of now. Ethanol production capacity is also increasing—Rs30,000 crore of loans have been sanctioned for setting up distilleries.
To produce ethanol, you need raw materials. The ‘easiest’ type of ethanol is 1G ethanol, i.e., ethanol made from crops (or by-products) that contain sugar (sugarcane, sugar beet, and molasses) or starch (rice, wheat, and potatoes). Currently, this is the ethanol that we use for E10 and (soon) E20.
Then comes 2G ethanol, which uses cellulose as raw material—straw, bagasse, and grass. The production process is more complex but the input is cheap—either waste material or vegetation grown in arid land. There are 3G and 4G ethanols, too, more complex and still experimental.
India is just about starting on 2G ethanol and, hence, currently, our ethanol comes from edible crops.
Here comes the rub, or rather, several rubs.
Firstly, ethanol corrodes rubber and some plastics, and if you leave BF in your vehicle’s fuel tank for a length of time, the tank will corrode. Modifying existing vehicles to accept high proportions of ethanol will cost a fair amount of money. Ethanol-friendly new cars will cost more as well.
Secondly, it is not quite true to say that BF is completely pollution-free. To manufacture 1G ethanol, you need to produce food crops. That requires a number of energy inputs—fuel to run tractors and harvesters, fuel for transportation, electricity for pumping water, fertilisers (whose production generates nitrous oxide), and so on. All of these generate emissions, which have to be considered.
Thirdly, ethanol is cheaper than petrol, but that is because of the tax structure. The cost of ethanol is around Rs50 per litre, which is almost the same as the international price of petrol (before tax) - Rs55. Yes, you are paying Rs100+ for petrol, but about half of that is tax.
If petrol is very largely replaced by ethanol, what will happen to the tax that the government is currently earning from petrol? Do you believe that the government will tax ethanol fuel at 5% when the tax revenue from petrol almost disappears?
Finally, how much ethanol can our country actually produce?
One tonnes of ethanol requires 2.33 tonnes of sugarcane, 3.42 tonnes of broken rice or 3.32 tonnes of corn. Let us approximate this to 3 tonnes of food crops per tonnes of ethanol. 
India consumes about 34mn tonnes of petrol annually. At international prices, this amounts to about Rs2.5 lakh crore.
If petrol could be totally replaced by BF, we would save Rs2.5 lakh crore of imports but would need about 100mn tonnes of food crops, plus ten times the ethanol production capacity that we now have.
Problems here!!!
  • Yes, India does have a surplus of food crops and sugarcane, but nowhere near enough to produce 34mn tonnes of BF.
  • Producing huge amounts of food crops, just for making ethanol, will require using very large amounts of arable land, huge volumes of water and fertilisers.
  • Petrol accounts for just about 1/7th (14.4%) of the total FF consumption of India. Diesel consumption is much higher – 37.4%. 
There are other fuels, too, LPG (14%) for example. What about these fuels?
Ah, Mr Gadkari has replacements for these as well—bio-diesel, bio-gas, and green hydrogen. What are his plans for producing them? Well…..
And what about the Rs16 lakh crore we were supposed to save? 
Oh, that? It is the total fuel import bill, the goal.
Let us start with replacing 10% (sorry, 20% by 2025) of the petrol with BF. This will take care of... let’s see... Yes, 20% of 14%, i.e. 3.8%.
The remaining 96.2% will be 'work in progress'.
Time for some facts now.
Our country has more than 1.4bn (billion) people and the economy is growing at a good pace. The demand for energy is naturally immense and growing. Besides, per capita energy consumption in India is far below that of the Western world, and this will grow, too.
This ballooning demand for energy cannot be met from just one or two sources, especially when we have to act responsibly and not let greenhouse emissions zoom as well. We need every possible source of energy—solar, wind, hydro, bio-fuels, nuclear, coal and natural gas—plus effective energy storage capacity.
Yes, I am sure the government is doing what it can.
I only wish that ‘sapne’, like BF and green hydrogen, not be flaunted as the way to meet our clean energy needs.
Such pie-in-the-sky speeches may sound great, but right now, they sound like preparations for 2024.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)
Kamal Garg
6 months ago
And sugar cane is the most water-hungry crop which further erodes water table of the country. I think the indirect cost and social cost of BF should be fully understood before embarking on such large mission.
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