- Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently announced that India has achieved its target of blending 10% sugarcane-extracted ethanol in petrol, ahead of schedule.
What is ethanol blending?
- Blending ethanol with petrol to burn less fossil fuel while running vehicles is called ethanol blending. Ethanol is an agricultural by-product which is mainly obtained from the processing of sugar from sugarcane, but also from other sources such as rice husk or maize.
- Currently, 10% of the petrol that powers your vehicle is ethanol. Though we have had an E10 — or 10% ethanol as policy for a while, it is only this year that we have achieved that proportion.
- India’s aim is to increase this ratio to 20% originally by 2030 but in 2021, when NITI Aayog put out the ethanol roadmap, that deadline was advanced to 2025.
- Ethanol blending will help bring down our share of oil imports (almost 85%) on which we spend a considerable amount of precious foreign exchange. Secondly, more ethanol output would help increase farmers’ incomes.
- The NITI Aayog report of June 2021 says, “India’s net import of petroleum was 185 million tonnes at a cost of $55 billion in 2020-21,” and that a successful ethanol blending programme can save the country $4 billion per annum.
What are first generation and second generation ethanols?
- With an aim to augment ethanol supplies, the government has allowed procurement of ethanol produced from other sources besides molasses — which is first generation ethanol or 1G.
- Other than molasses, ethanol can be extracted from materials such as rice straw, wheat straw, corn cobs, corn stover, bagasse, bamboo and woody biomass, which are second generation ethanol sources or 2G.
How have other countries fared?
- Though the U.S., China, Canada and Brazil all have ethanol blending programmes, as a developing country, Brazil stands out. It had legislated that the ethanol content in petrol should be in the 18-27.5% range, and it finally touched the 27% target in 2021.
How does it impact the auto industry?
- At the time of the NITI Aayog report in June last year, the industry had committed to the government to make all vehicles E20 material compliant by 2023. This meant that the petrol points, plastics, rubber, steel and other components in vehicles would need to be compliant to hold/store fuel that is 20% ethanol. Without such a change, rusting is an obvious impediment.
- Sources in the auto industry state that they prefer the use of biofuels as the next step, compared to other options such as electric vehicles (EV), hydrogen power and compressed natural gas. This is mainly because biofuels demand the least incremental investment for manufacturers.
- Even though the industry is recovering from the economic losses bought on by the pandemic, it is bound to make some change to comply with India’s promise for net-zero emissions by 2070.
- The Niti Aayog report points out that the challenges before the industry are: optimisation of engine for higher ethanol blends and the conduct of durability studies on engines and field trials before introducing E20 compliant vehicles.
- There are multiple issues at stake for this endeavour. Storage is going to be the main concern, for if E10 supply has to continue in tandem with E20 supply, storage would have to be separate which then raises costs.
What have been the objections against this transition?
- By using the left-over residue from rice harvests to make ethanol, stubble burning will also reduce. However, 2G ethanol projects do not reduce the emission of another key pollutant — nitrous oxide.
- The water needed to grow crops for ethanol is another debating point. For India, sugarcane is the cheapest source of ethanol. On average, a tonne of sugarcane can produce 100 kg of sugar and 70 litres of ethanol — meaning, a litre of ethanol from sugar requires 2,860 litres of water.
- There has been, therefore, a move toward waste-based extraction, such as through coarse grains. But supply may still be a problem.
- Some studies also flagged the impact on crop output meant for food and fodder.