Fuel Proof

Illustrations: Samia Singh

Murad Ali BaigPetrol sticker shock could boost an investment in alternative fuels. Murad Ali Baig assesses the options

SHOCKED BY the sudden hike in petrol prices, Indian motorists are bracing themselves for a corresponding rise in diesel. This might be the moment auto companies get serious about exploring alternate fuels. The old argument that the options are too expensive, no longer applies. The Central and state government must work on a ‘war footing’ to harness new technologies and provide tax incentives to make them viable.


A few electric vehicles like India’s little Reva and electric two-wheelers from Hero Motors, Electrotherm and TVS have already made inroads. Many companies have prototype cars and bikes but customs and taxes make them expensive and they have a limited range of about 80 km per charge. Like London, our cities will need to provide charging points at parking lots to make them popular.

CNG and AutoLPG are successful low-pollution fuels that can be adapted to any petrol engine. CNG can only be transported by high-pressure pipelines and has only been supplied to areas around Delhi and Mumbai. AutoLPG (not kitchen LPG — both illegal and dangerous) as a liquid can be easily delivered to every town, and must be encouraged.

Brazil was one of the first countries to introduce a mix of 25 percent ethanol, derived from sugarcane, with petrol, which was incentivised with a lower retail price over 30 years ago. It can be used in petrol-powered vehicles without any modification to the engines or fuel systems but is slightly low on power and fuel efficiency. A 5 percent mix is now belatedly being used in India.

For trucks, buses and diesel cars, pure jatropha oil can be used without any modifications to the engines. It contains no sulphur so there is no sulphur oxide (SOx) emission and nitrogen oxide (NOx) is also low. Jatropha is an unutilised plant genus that can grow on barren, saline and eroded wasteland, and thrives with little water or care. The cost of producing this bio-diesel is roughly 30 per litre, which is a bit higher than the cost of diesel from crude. The fuel is proven, but oil companies are not interested.

Mahindra & Mahindra has a hybrid Scorpio and Honda has launched their Civic Hybrid in India. These perform as well as standard vehicles but need only half the fuel and so generate half the pollution. Although the new Civic’s advanced 1340 cc petrol engine only generates a modest 94 hp as compared to 130 hp of the normal Civic’s 1800 cc engine, it is complemented by a 20 hp electric motor (with very high torque) for acceleration with both the engine and the motor working together. At low speeds, the engine shuts down and the electric motor takes over. On deceleration, the motor turns into a generator to recharge the big battery pack and to provide engine braking. However, high customs duty and taxes make hybrids very expensive.

Several automakers like GM and BMW also have prototypes running on hydrogen that can be fed into mildly modified petrol engines producing only steam for clean exhaust emissions. The hydrogen is produced from electricity that usually comes from a polluting power station but is overall much less polluting. However, hydrogen cars need a network of dispensing pumps.

Many automakers feel that fuel cell is a promising long-term technology that extracts hydrogen from methanol, CNG or other fuels. It then separates the electrons and protons to generate electricity to drive a motor. The catch? Power output is still rather low, while the cost of the technology is high.



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