Is flex fuel vehicles the way forward?

Is flex fuel vehicles the way forward?

Flex fuel engines have been making headlines in the Indian auto industry for quite some time. The government is pushing the idea of using flex fuel engines for vehicles in India to promote greener and cleaner energy solutions for the automobiles in the country. What would be the way forward for flex fuel engines in India? What would be its impact on other sectors?

A flexible-fuel vehicle (FFV) is an IC Engine powered vehicle that can run on any percentage of gasoline blended with Ethanol or Methanol. The fuel is stored in a single tank. The fuel injection and spark timing are automatically adjusted depending on the actual fuel blend through the use of a fuel sensor. The emission performance thus achieved, is as per the regulated emission norms.

The most common commercially available flex fuel vehicles in the world are theoretically designed for running on any proportion of ethanol-gasoline blend from Zero to 100 per cent ethanol (E100). However, from practical considerations taking into consideration, the low ambient temperatures of about 10 degrees Centigrade the same are optimised for E 85 i.e., 85 per cent ethanol-gasoline blend.  Brazil flex fuel vehicles are optimised to operate on any blend from E20 to up to 100 per cent hydrous ethanol.

As per the data available it is estimated that about 60 million vehicles including motorcycles and light commercial vehicles were sold by March 2018. Brazil accounted for about 30.5 million cars and over 6 million motorcycles, while the US accounted for 21 million light-duty vehicles while Canada and Europe accounted for the remaining flex fuel vehicles.

India notified 5% blending (E5) back in 2015 and further increased the limit to 10% in 2019.

Nitin Gadkari in the meeting held with the delegation of CEOs of SIAM (Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers) on August 3, 2021appealed to them to roll out flex fuel vehicles capable of running on 100 per cent ethanol or petrol in the Indian market within a year’s time. Earlier this year at the 2021 ‘Autocar Awards’he had also expressed his wish for the Indian Auto industry to explore flex fuel engines. He elaborated, saying that he thinks both four-wheelers and two-wheelers could run on either petrol or ethanol as a fuel.

Recently as per media reports, the Ministry is thinking of making it mandatory for the industry to provide flex fuel engines in their vehicles. It is understood that the Ministry is working on rules and regulations for the same and the same may be notified as early as the coming six months.

India had already notified 5 per cent blending (E5) way back in 2015 and further increased the same to 10 per cent through a notification in 2019. The use of E85 was also notified in 2016 and later followed by emission standards for these blends.

Currently, all vehicles produced in the country are compatible with 10 per cent ethanol-gasoline blends (E10) that already uses ethanol-blended petrol, which started with a 5 per cent doping level and currently stands at about 10 per cent. Earlier last month, the government brought forward its target for introducing 20 per cent ethanol-blended petrol (E20) by two years, from 2025 to 2023.

Changes required from OEMs to make vehicles flex fuel compatible will result in a price hike of up to Rs 25,000.

According to an assessment by the Society of Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), the changes required from the manufacturers to make vehicles flex fuel compatible will result in a price hike of up to Rs 25,000. For two-wheeled FFVs, the cost would go up between Rs 5,000 to Rs 12,000. This is due to, apart from material compatibility, the engine has to be designed to be able to handle a totally different fuel (E100). E100 has a very low (40 per cent) Calorific value as compared to Gasoline, thus requiring fuel injectors that can inject almost double the quantity of fuel with compatible fuel pumps, spark plugs etc.

The high latent heat of vaporization causing cooling of charge/combustion etc. would require fuel heating systems for start assist. The flex fuel vehicles would also require fuel sensing sensors that can determine the quality of the fuel and accordingly the control parameters like ignition timing etc. kick in to give optimised engine performance.  Further Ethanol also acts as a solvent and could wipe out the protective oil film inside the engine thereby could cause wear and tear. Therefore, the crankcase oils have to be compatible with the same and safeguard the moving parts of the engine against wear & tear for trouble-free running for the customer.

The lower calorific value would also impact the fuel economy and give lower milage in terms of kilometre per litre to the customer and therefore has to be priced lower than petrol suitably so that the running cost for the customer remains comparable. In Brazil, the tax on gasoline and ethanol is such that ethanol is cheaper to compensate for the lower calorific value and higher fuel consumption. The economic advantage also helps in driving the demand for flex fuel vehicles.

India has about 70,000 retail outlets but need to install additional outlets for ethanol (E100) to make the flex fuel vehicle a success.

There are also questions regarding the emission performance of the higher ethanol-gasoline blends. According to studies conducted and published by NITI Aayog, carbon monoxide emissions in four-wheelers were 30 per cent lower with the use of E20 fuel. Similarly, hydrocarbon emissions saw a 20 per cent drop with both E10 and E20 levels of ethanol blend. According to SIAM’s “White Paper on Alternative Fuels for Vehicles”, there is a trade-off. Ethanol blends have a higher Reid Vapour Pressure, resulting in higher evaporative emissions, which, according to the paper, can impact the ambient zone.

This could lead to the higher secondary particulate formation which can “negate the efforts being taken to reduce the particulate emission load from vehicles”.SIAM claimed that the trade-off can be countered with technological and infrastructural safeguards but cautioned against proceeding to make concrete plans for higher blends of ethanol without checking the environmental and safety concerns.

Flex fuel

Scarcity of fuel stations

The scarcity of fuel stations will be another major constraint for flex fuel vehicles’ introduction in the country. In Brazil which has the largest number of flex fuel vehicles, all the 40,000-odd fuel stations sell either gasoline with 27 per cent ethanol blend (E27) or pure ethanol (E100). India has about 70,000 retail outlets mostly owned by state-owned oil marketing companies which need to install additional outlets for ethanol (E100) to make the flex fuel vehicle a success which would be at a huge cost and may be a problem in petrol stations in the metro cities due to constraint of putting in additional underground storage tanks and dispensing units.

Social-economic conditions

Social-economic conditions in the country could be another challenge in the country where the common man may not be able to differentiate between potable alcohol and E100. A denaturant is mostly added to E100 to discourage its misuse by people but this may not be enough and could lead to widespread misuse. If the E100 is doped with a poisonous denaturant that could lead to deaths particularly in regions with prohibition. The same assumes even more importance if Methanol is used which is a poison and if misused by a layman could cause huge human tragedy

Flex fuel

Food vs Fuel

India as one of the largest producers of sugarcane in the world exports sugar to 60 countries. The government allowed the export of 60 lakh tonnes of sugar under the Maximum Admissible Export Quota (MAEQ) in the 2019-20 marketing year to liquidate surplus sugar, in global markets. The country exported 38 lakh tonnes of sugar in 2018-19 marketing year.

Fuel ethanol output in India reached 1.9 billion litres in 2019, but it is expected to drop by about 8 per cent to 1.8 billion litres in 2020. Production prospects have been impacted by a 13 per cent reduction in gasoline demand, while lower oil prices mean that ethanol is less affordable than unblended gasoline. In addition, constrained ethanol storage capacity at mills has compromised production. However, production could rebound to about a record 2.7 billion L in 2021 as gasoline demand recovers and more molasses feedstocks become available. Further, an average output of 3.2 billion L per year is expected in the period 2023-25, with increased investments in production capacity.

It is estimated that even with the increase in India’s ethanol production capacity the domestic output will fall short of the country’s biofuel policy goal for 2025.  Looking at the current scenario and expected increase in ethanol production India may only achieve around 7-10 per cent of gasoline demand.

To achieve 20% target, India needs to expand its ethanol production to 10.2 billion litres, including 5.5 billion litres from sugarcane and a whopping 4.7 billion litres from grains.

“To achieve the 20 per cent target, India needs to expand its ethanol production to 10.2 billion litres – including 5.5 billion litres from sugarcane and a whopping 4.7 billion litres from grains,” according to the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), a government-backed policy thinktank. This puts a question mark on achieving a target of 20 per cent ethanol in such a short span of time unless a significant volume of ethanol production happens from grains, in addition to sugarcane.

This would put pressure on the food crops diversion to distilleries leading to a possible shortfall in food grains for the poor. There is a need to take a holistic approach on the same as diversion of grains to ethanol production on such a magnitude is bound to drive the cost of grains for the vulnerable population. There is a need to adopt 2nd generation ethanol production capacity based upon biomass waste to drive the increase in ethanol blending from 10 per cent to 20 per cent.

Way forward

In view of these constraints, it may be a better idea to gradually increase the content of ethanol in gasoline as envisaged in the biofuel policy 2018, which would also achieve the same target for gasoline replacement without additional investment on adding additional E100 retail outlets and misuse of ethanol for potable purpose.

Also Read: How Hydrogen as energy is showing its potential

(K. K. Gandhi is the Convener & Founder of Centre for Auto Policy & Research, Founder Member Secretary, Hydrogen Association of India and Sector Expert Transportation, Bureau of Energy Efficiency, Ministry of Power.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Autofintechs.com. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)

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