Ethanol mixing in petrol. Key basics explained.

In recent times all of us have been reading about Government of India’s increasing push to mix Ethanol with Petrol.

Yesterday, Hon’ble PM rolled out 20% ethanol-blended petrol in 11 States/UTs.

All of us believe that the mixing must be to reduce pollution. We however are not sure whether the actual petrol that we get is already ethanol mixed and whether our vehicles are fine to use that.

Current post is an effort to answer some of these kind of basic questions on the topic.

What is Ethanol?

Ethanol, also called ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, or alcohol, is an organic compound.

It is an important industrial chemical; used as a solvent, in the synthesis of other organic chemicals and is also the intoxicating ingredient of alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine, and distilled spirits.

There are two main processes for the manufacture of ethanol: the fermentation of carbohydrates (the method used for alcoholic beverages) and the hydration of ethylene.

  • Fermentation involves the transformation of carbohydrates to ethanol by growing yeast cells. The chief raw materials fermented for the production of industrial alcohol are sugar crops such as beets and sugarcane and grain crops such as corn (maize).
  • Hydration of ethylene is achieved by passing a mixture of ethylene and a large excess of steam at high temperature and pressure over an acidic catalyst.

For purpose of mixing with gasoline, we are mainly interested in production through natural fermentation process of sugarcane (i.e., molasses) and other agricultural produce (i.e., other grains).

Is Ethanol mixing with petrol a new concept in India?

Not really. However, the focus has surely shifted significantly under the current regime.

The Ethanol mixing to petrol was insignificant at 1.53% in 2013-14.

It increased to 5% in 2019-20, further to 8.10% in 2020-21 and now to 10.17 %.

We are targeting a 20% mix in next 2 years – i.e., All petrol sold in the country is targeted to have 20 per cent ethanol by 2025.

Parallelly, there are talks about flex fuel engines, that can take upto 80-85% ethanol blended mix (like in Brazil).

Who does the blending and how?

The blending is done by the oil marketing companies at their terminals.

The modus operandi includes a stream of ethanol stored in a tank. A separate pumping and metering mechanism is deployed for loading the ethanol into the petrol loading arm at terminals.

Why exactly are we mixing. Is it to reduce pollution?

Ethanol is surely considered to emit less carbon dioxide than petrol. However, in our case reason is more commercial/ economy related.

India currently is 85 per cent dependent on imports for meeting its oil needs. The country spent USD 120.7 billion on import of crude oil in FY 2021-22. In the current fiscal, USD 125 billion have already been spent on oil imports in the first nine months (April 2022 to December 2022) alone.

This exposes our economy and foreign exchange requirements significantly to the global uncertainties (e.g., ongoing Ukraine-Russia War).

Increased use of domestically produced ethanol will mitigate this risk.

Besides, it also provides farmers with an additional source of income. During the last eight years, ethanol suppliers have earned Rs 81,796 crore while farmers have got Rs 49,078 crore.

Do we have sufficient ethanol producing capacity?

The current annual ethanol production capacity in the country is about 1,037 crore litres which includes 700 crore litres of molasses-based and 337 crore litres of grain-based production capacity.

As per the roadmap prepared by the NITI Aayog, which is based on the projected sale of petrol, the estimated requirement of ethanol for blending with petrol is 542 crore litres for 2022-23, 698 crore litres for 2023-24, 988 crore litres for 2024-25 and 1016 crore litres for 2025-26.

So yes, it seems we have sufficient capacity for atleast next 2-3 years. Beyond that, one has to assume that new set-ups/ expansions would happen.

There have been some concerns about the food supplies being diverted to ethanol production and it’s impact, particularly as a food crisis looms globally. For now, not much is known on this.

Am I already getting the blended petrol and is my vehicle fine to handle that?

Currently, most petrol available across pumps in India is the ‘E10’ variety – a blend of the fuel with about 5 to 10 per cent ethanol.

So Yes, by default we are already using it.

For E10 fuel, the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), had set up fuel material compatibility countermeasures for all vehicles from model year 2008. So, all vehicles sold in India after 2008 can take E10 fuel without any difficulty.

However, current E10 compatible vehicles cannot take more than a 10 per cent blend as there are material compatibility concerns with parts that come in contact with fuel. There are design and material changes required to adapt to E20 fuel but the industry is working to implement E20 material compatibility for new vehicles from April 2023 onwards. There will be changes in hoses and gaskets but the investments required are not substantial.

How the existing vehicles will be upgraded to shift towards E20 over the next two years, remains to be seen. Maybe both E10 and E20 variety will simultaneously keep selling.

Any impact of ethanol blend on the vehicle’s performance?

Ethanol by its chemical composition has lower energy per unit volume than petrol. Thus, fuel efficiency from any ethanol-blended petrol is less than that of ‘pure’ petrol. For example, E20 petrol will have a fuel efficiency of 5 to 7 per cent less than the pure petrol.

What about the price? Will I pay less per litre?

Price of Ethanol used for the mix is set by the government. For the supply year beginning December 2022, the price of ethanol extracted from sugarcane juice has been raised from Rs 63.45/ litre to Rs 65.60/ litre.

For the final consumer there is no impact on the oil price. Irrespective of the blend, the price per litre remains same as that of pure petrol.

What about flex fuel vehicles? When are we getting that?

Difficult to say as it requires significant investment by the manufacturer. It’s like creating a completely new platform to handle a totally different engine based vehicle.

Auto industry in fact is confused whether to make investments towards Electric Vehicles or towards the flex fuel based vehicles.

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