New Delhi: With prices of crude oil going beyond the $142 mark for a barrel, Indian motorists will have to brace themselves for another huge price hike, where prices of both petrol and diesel will touch Rs90 a litre, shorn of all subsidies.
Murad Ali Baig, auto expert & columnist
Futuristic car technologies are no longer a distant dream. Automakers know that any increase in fossil fuel prices will severely hit sales. So unlike the oil companies, they are very serious about promoting any fuel that can push up car sales.
Until quite recently, the low cost of petroleum products had caused people to believe that fuel alternatives, like electric, hybrid, hydrogen, fuel cells and agro-based fuels, were uneconomic. This perception is fast changing.
CNG and Auto LPG
CNG and Auto LPG are already successful auto fuels with low pollution levels that can be easily adapted for any petrol engine. Certified kits for both fuels are available at a cost of about Rs15,000 to 25,000. CNG is however, a pure gas and can only be transported by high-pressure pipelines, making its impact felt only in areas around Delhi and Mumbai.
Auto LPG (not kitchen LPG – which is both illegal and dangerous) as a liquid is far easier to transport and is used by about 12 million cars in 14 countries. It is stored at low pressure and can be easily delivered by road tankers to any city. Auto LPG will be the quickest way to reduce atmospheric pollution in most Indian cities while simultaneously offering a lower cost fuel option. But investments in special dispensing pumps, similar to CNG dispensers, are necessary for this fuel to become successful and our oil companies have yet to take this seriously.
Both CNG and Auto LPG are affected by crude oil prices and they do deserve government subsidies. In many countries like Turkey and Holland the government provided free conversion kits that made the change quick and easy.
It may come as a surprise but a world leader in pure electric cars is India’s Reva that was launched in Delhi recently. There are already 700 Reva’s running in Bangalore and 1,000 in London. To encourage this Rs.Zero Pollution’ little car, the British Government has cut taxes and London charges no Congestion Tax. It also provides free parking with free electricity provided at several car parks. It is not only being used as a second car but is already a hit with many lawyers, doctors, architects and corporate executives who find parking and travel in congested city areas difficult.
The Indian government should provide a similar boost for eco friendly cars instead of some Rs300,000 crore a year on subsidizing old fossil fuel burners. Electric cars may be zero pollution wherever they drive but they need electricity produced by polluting power plants.
The Reva costs Rs3 lakh but since the user has to spend very little on electricity and almost nothing on repairs and maintenance, it becomes a very cost efficient vehicle. It can comfortably seat two large adults and two kids in the small back seat and go up to 80 kmph with a range of 80 km per charge. making energy costs 10% of the smallest petrol car. It also has seats that can be heated or cooled and the deluxe model has an air-conditioner. There is an Electrotherm electric scooter. Clearly, these zero-pollution vehicles need the support of the central and state governments . A total tax holiday, till the time they become more acceptable would be a good idea.
Mahindra & Mahindra had displayed a hybrid Scorpio prototype at the Auto Expo and now Honda has launched their Civic Hybrid in India. This will have the comfort of a luxury saloon and will perform equally well. It will need only half the fuel of a normal car and will generate half the pollution. However, as it will be fully imported, taxes will make it cost twice as much as the normal Civic. The Toyota’s Prius model, which is selling quite well in several world markets, has a similar technology.
The new car’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) 1340 cc petrol engine has been set to only generate a modest 94 hp as compared to 130 hp of the normal Civic’s 1800 cc engine. It is, however, complimented by a 20 hp electric motor that has nearly the same torque as the petrol engine for excellent pick up. When accelerating, the engine and the motor work together to provide responsive power but when the foot is lifted off the accelerator, the engine quietly shuts down and the electric motor takes over for cruising or idling.
On de-acceleration, the motor turns into a generator to recharge the big nickel-metal hydrid batteries and for engine braking. The result is that, despite weighing 80 kg more than the standard model, it gives good performance with half the fuel consumption and it therefore reduces CO2 emissions by half. Emissions that normally double during acceleration are also cut when the electric motor cuts in to assist. Also the three-way catalytic converter reduces pollution to 1/10 of the highest emission norms.
Tata Motors has entered a technical collaboration with MDI of France to produce a car propelled by air. It works on the same principle as an air gun where air can be compressed to generate enough explosive force to drive car pistons. A fairly simple electric pump can compress the air to fill two big high pressure tanks under the car that provide enough air to take the car about 120 km between fills. Like the pure electric car the fuel is cheap and pollution free but needs electricity from a power plant.
Several car companies, such as GM and BMW, also have prototypes running on hydrogen that can be fed into a mildly modified conventional petrol engine. When hydrogen and oxygen burn, the exhaust only emits steam for supremely clean exhaust emissions.
And though hydrogen is made from electricity that usually comes from a power station, it is much less polluting. No one will buy a hydrogen car unless there are several hundred pumps dispensing hydrogen. China is reportedly setting up 10,000 hydrogen pumps to help clean up the pollution in its cities.
Many automakers feel that fuel cell is the most promising long-term technology, using a reformer to extract hydrogen from methanol, CNG or other fuels in its fuel tank. The fuel cell then separates the electrons and protons to generate electricity that drives an efficient electric motor. The problem is that the power output is still rather small, while the cost of technology is high. However, this will change with better technologies and volume production.
Bio fuels - ethanol
In the area of bio fuels, Brazil was the first to introduce a mix of 25% Ethanol, derived from sugarcane, with petrol to make Gasohol 30 years ago and was popularized with a slightly lower retail price. A 10% mix can be used in any petrol-powered car without any modification to the engines or fuel systems. Now a 5% mix is being belatedly used in India. Since ethanol can be made from maize or sugarcane there are concerns that in promoting it, food availability could be affected. In India, Ethanol is obtained from molasses that are used for making alcohol, post extraction of sugar.
For trucks, buses and diesel cars, pure Jatropha oil, with a little additive can be used instead of diesel without any modifications to the engines or fuel systems. Jetropha oil compares well with diesel. Bio-diesel contains no sulphur so there are no SOX while NOX is very low. Jetropha by itself, is a useless plant that came to India from Mexico along with imported wheat in the 60’s. It cannot be used for food, fibre or fuel but because it can grow on barren, saline and eroded wasteland, and thrives with little water or care and competes with no other food crop.
According to estimates, two tonnes of seeds can be obtained from one hectare of average land, yielding about 500 litres of oil per year worth about Rs25,000 at the price of normal diesel. The cost of producing this bio diesel, including refining, costs is roughly Rs30 per litre, which is quite high but it will help reduce India’s huge import burden and give income to India’s poor farmers.
The time has come for the Government and auto industry to take up various alternative technologies on a war footing. This means that the central and state government must immediately provide incentives for promoting desirable technologies and making alternate fuels available.
Murad Ali Baig is one of India’s foremost auto experts. Feedback to his column can be sent at firstname.lastname@example.org