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Business News/ Opinion / Indian sugarcane fields could yield a flex-fuel bonanza

Indian sugarcane fields could yield a flex-fuel bonanza

Brazil’s example shows what we could achieve in our effort to reduce carbon emissions for the planet’s sake

All we need to do is adopt the production techniques that have been perfected in Brazil over the last 50 years and mandate that all internal combustion engine vehicles be redesigned to incorporate flex-fuel technology (Photo: Reuters)Premium
All we need to do is adopt the production techniques that have been perfected in Brazil over the last 50 years and mandate that all internal combustion engine vehicles be redesigned to incorporate flex-fuel technology (Photo: Reuters)

In an earlier article in this column, I had pointed out that plants were the solar cells of the natural world. They use sunlight to create carbon-based stores of energy that they store and can steadily release as they grow. When they die, complex planetary forces convert these stores of energy into the fossil fuels (coal, petroleum and the like) that we have learned to extract from the ground and use to power everything around us, from the vehicles we drive to the power plants that keep our lights on.

These fuel sources take millennia to produce, and, once consumed, are lost forever. They emit greenhouse gases that have warmed up the planet to a point where the technology that once contributed to our civilizational advancement has become an existential threat to us all.

Regular readers of this column will know that I am bullish on electric vehicles (EVs). I have written at length on the advantages of battery-swapping technologies and the vehicle-to-grid opportunities they present. However, as much as EVs are themselves zero emission, as long as the batteries they use are charged using electricity from the power grid, their net carbon impact is still high because a significant proportion of our power plants use fossil fuel for generation.

Till we build a purely renewable energy grid, we will need to keep looking for less polluting energy sources. Fuel that can be replenished, that is, harvested year after year rather than mined and consumed once and for all. That is environmentally friendly and emits less carbon into the atmosphere than is consumed in its creation.

I’d heard about ethanol fuel for a while but, for some reason, had assumed that it was still experimental technology. I thought that in order for it to work, we’d need a completely different internal combustion engine —one that had been re-engineered to be able to use ethanol.

It was only recently that I learnt, to my surprise, that not only was this not true, a number of countries around the world have been mixing ethanol into their petrol and using it in cars that are barely different from those on our streets. In 2003, ever since flex-fuel technology was first deployed in Brazil, car owners have had the option to fill their tanks with petrol, a mixture of ethanol and petrol or 100% (hydrous) ethanol. Today, as many as 93% of the vehicles in Brazil are capable of running on ethanol.

Ethanol emits between 44% and 52% less greenhouse gas emissions as compared to petrol. As a result, even when it is combined with petrol, it significantly reduces the CO2 emissions of a vehicle. In the two decades since the deployment of flex-fuel technology, Brazil’s contribution of CO2 equivalents into the atmosphere has been as much as 1.34 billion tonnes less than it could have been. This is largely why, despite being one of the most densely populated cities on the planet, Sao Paulo is among the least polluted.

Ethanol production in Brazil is highly efficient. Most facilities use residual waste from the process (bagasse) for power—generating enough to run the plant with excess to spare. In 2020, as much as 5% of the total power consumption of the country was met by bio-electricity generated from bagasse.

So why is all this relevant to us in India?

Brazilian ethanol is produced from sugarcane. As a result, it has a much higher energy balance that corn-based ethanol that is produced by the US. The fact is that, even if they want to, very few other countries can produce sugar ethanol. One of the peculiarities of sugarcane is that once harvested, it needs to be converted into ethanol within 24 hours or else it spoils. As a result, all sugar ethanol production plants have to be located right in the centre of the fields from which they get their raw material. What this means is that only those countries that cultivate sugarcane can produce ethanol from it. The real reason why Brazil is one of the world’s leading producers of sugar ethanol is that it also happens to be one of the world’s largest producers of sugarcane.

Which brings us to India. Like Brazil, India is a major sugar producer. This year, with production estimated to touch 41 million metric tonnes, we will probably even be the world’s largest. This means that, like Brazil, India is one of the very few countries in the world that can quickly adapt its fuel supply to incorporate ethanol. All we need to do is adopt the production techniques that have been perfected in Brazil over the last 50 years and mandate that all internal combustion engine vehicles be redesigned to incorporate flex-fuel technology. If we can implement these changes, we will significantly reduce our CO2 emissions, letting us make progress towards our CoP-26 commitments without the need for immediate radical alterations to our energy infrastructure.

Earlier this month, India’s Union minister for transport Nitin Gadkari flagged off the country’s first flex-fuel car that was capable of running on petrol, ethanol or any mixture of the two. He said that ethanol-blended fuel would likely be available in select parts of the country by next year with a nationwide rollout planned in a few years time.

To be clear, ethanol is not a complete solution to the climate challenges of the world. It is, however, an easy first step towards a more sustainable future—one that will buy us the time we need over the next decade or so to substantively restructure our energy infrastructure in the way that needs to be made in order to effect lasting change in the country.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan

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Published: 25 Oct 2022, 10:08 PM IST
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