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The auto sector is testing many new technologies to reduce carbon emissions. Flex fuel is one technology that has gained currency. On Tuesday, Toyota began pilot-testing its Corolla Altis flex fuel hybrid car in India. Mint explains the potential of this technology

What are flex fuel vehicles?

Like traditional vehicles, flex fuel vehicles have an internal combustion engine, but instead of regular petrol, it can run on blended fuel—petrol with ethanol or methanol. The ethanol mix can vary between 20% and 85%. The vehicle has additional sensors and different programming of the engine control module to assess the blend of the fuel and adjust accordingly. Unlike electric hybrid vehicles, no bulky parts need to be added to the basic gasoline vehicle architecture. Upgrading existing vehicles to run on high blend of ethanol fuel, however, is possible but expensive and not considered feasible.

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Are they better than traditional vehicles?

Flex fuel vehicles are seen as a one-shot solution for multiple problems—pollution, oil import bill and glut in sugar production. According to the US department of energy, they have lower overall greenhouse gas emissions, between 40-108%, depending on the feedstock used to produce them. It could also help bring down India’s crude oil import bill. Further, India also suffers from a glut in sugar production of 6 million tonnes and in sugar season 2020-21, about 2.4 million tonne was diverted to produce 302 litres of ethanol for blending. India has set a target of 20% blending rate for 2025.

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Is there a catch in the flex fuel technology?

There is unlikely to be any direct benefit to the consumer. Though ethanol costs much lower than petrol at 47-64/ltr depending on the sugarcane source, oil marketing companies are expected to pocket the cost differential. It is also controlled by the government. So, chances of frequent revision are high. On the contrary, the fuel economy is likely to fall by 4-8%.

What are the challenges?

For mass adoption, adequate supply of different types of ethanol blends is needed across the country. This would have to be in addition to the existing network as current vehicles on the road would have to be supplied with fuel that has only 10% ethanol blending. This means significant investment in infra by oil firms. At the same time, constant supply of ethanol would have to be ensured. Since this largely comes from sugarcane in India, which is a water-guzzling crop, any drought could have an impact on blending rates.

How do they fit in with carbon neutrality?

With electrification already on the horizon, flex fuel vehicles are seen as a stop-gap arrangement. The benefit for the environment is less as compared to battery EVs or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles of the future. With much lower cost of running, they also offer better economy for consumers. The Toyota pilot project notwithstanding, there is also resistance from the industry—they want to prioritize investments and not get stretched thin between hybrid and battery electric, fuel cell and flex fuel technologies.

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