India experiments with alternate fuels in its drive towards green mobility 

by Shahkar Abidi 02 Apr 2020


Even as crude oil prices have collapsed to their lowest levels since 2002 and motorists in India have yet to benefit from much-lowered prices, there is hectic activity on the alternate fuel front in India.

In end-February this year, the fuel retailers associations' leadership from across the States and Union Territories of India met for a brainstorming session in the  verdant hill station Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu.

The retail association members deliberated on the emergence of newer forms of automotive fuels such as electric vehicles, CNG and bio-CNG among others and the challenge they pose to their traditional petrol/diesel retailing business. At the end of the two-day event, the retailers returned mulling with the idea of adding new-age fuels to their fossil fuel stations.

Recent years have seen a marked shift towards the use of cleaner and safer fuels, moving away from conventional fossil-based fuels. For India, which imports about 84 percent of its energy needs in the form of fossil fuels, it is is becoming imperative to diversify its energy sources to ensure sustainable economic growth. However, what is driving the change is the growing awareness about health concerns from the pollution emitted by conventional fossil fuels. In fact, the ongoing country-wide lockdown due to coronavirus has helped bring about substantial improvement in the air quality across India, particularly in New Delhi and some automotive hubs.

Potential benefits of developing a CNG infrastructure in India.
Graphic: Nomura Securities

Fossil fuels vs bio-CNG and bio-fuels
For the Indian automotive sector, the current trends revolve around compressed natural gas (CNG), bio-CNG, Autogas (LPG), biodiesel, ethanol-blended petrol, hydrogen energy and electric mobility. Experts are of the opinion that though alternate forms of fuels develop, conventional fuel like petrol and diesel are likely to be the mainstay for at least two more decades, before they begin to see demand go down. And, as in the current global situation, when crude oil prices are at a record low, the consumer shift to alternate fuels gets impacted.

Meanwhile, an innovative and low-cost solution which emerged from the fuel retailers’  meeting was the setting up of bio-CNG plants in the backyards of their fuel retailing estates. Talking to Autocar Professional, Ajay Bansal, President of the All India Petrol Dealers Association said, “The developments in automotive fuel field are happening very fast. We need to face the new challenges with innovation and flexibility.” Bansal himself, in collaboration with some investors, is setting up a CBG plant near Karnal in Haryana. His company Ajay Bio-Energy Pvt Ltd is part of the SATAT (Sustainable Alternative Towards Affordable Transportation) programme under the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MoP&NG). The scheme envisages targeted production of 15 MMT (million tons) of CBG by 2023, from 5,000 plants, which is about 40% of current CNG consumption of 44 million tonnes per annum in the country

The development seems significant because India has around 68,761 fuel retailing stations, of which around 17,141 are in rural areas alone. Also, there are plans by oil marketing companies (OMC)s to double up the number of retail stations over the next decade. Hence, even if a fraction of these fuel stations adopt a CBG plant in their backyard, the cumulative effect would be considerable, say officials at MoP&NG.

Likewise, while the country has moved towards environmentally safer BS VI emission norms, the fact is that conventional fuels are derived from the depleting fossil fuel resources. Biodiesel, which is processed from used cooking oil, is increasingly gaining traction. Globally, it is made from commonly available oils like soyabean, palm oil and rapeseed . However, in India non-edible tree-borne oil seeds such as Jatropha and Karanjia are also used. Indian Oil Corporation (IOCL), for instance, has developed a process to produce biodiesel from Jatropha and Karanjia among others and has been conducting extensive field trials using 5 and 10 percent biodiesel blends in collaboration with the Indian Railways for plantation of Jatropha on railway land. The oil and gas giant has also set up a state-of-the-art quality control laboratory to check the quality of biodiesel, as per ASTM/BIS specifications. Further, it is also setting up 10 biodiesel procurement centres. The company claims to have observed a reduction of 10 to 15% in smoke density with the use of biodiesel blend.

Praj Matrix's second-gen pilot plant for cellulosic ethanol production at Urawade, Temghar-Lavasa road, Pune. It has a processing capacity of one tonne of biomass a day.

There's also ethanol, the sugcarcane-derived bio-fuel, for which the government has a mandate to blend 10% with petrol by the year 2022 and doubling it by 2030. According to Pramod Chaudhari, chairman and founder of Praj Industries, instead of electric mobility and other forms of fossil-based fuels, the automobile industry should move towards developing bio-mobility. “It is the need of the hour” Chaudhari said during a recent interaction with Autocar Professional. Chaudhari’s Praj Industries-backed plants today develop about 8 percent of total global ethanol production. Praj Industries , thorough its state-of-art Praj Matrix R&D centre is working to develop new technologies of biofuels.

Whither hydrogen?
There's one alternative fuel for which most experts are backing: hydrogen. Indian Oil's R&D Centre is the nodal agency of the hydrocarbon sector for ushering in hydrogen energy use in the country. As part of its hydrogen energy roadmap, Indian Oil has set up India's first hydrogen-CNG fuel dispensing station at its R&D Centre at Faridabad. The pilot station provides a hands-on experience with on-site hydrogen production, storage, distribution and supply.

In due course of time, Indian Oil, in coordination with vehicle manufacturers, plans to  take up laboratory scale development of H-CNG engines. Some of the other projects identified include development of hydrogen-powered three-wheeler and bus engines in association with SIAM (Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers), conversion of CNG three-wheelers and buses to H-CNG mixture and development of Hydrogen conversion kits for portable gensets. Dr SSV Ramakumar, director (R&D), IndiaOil said, “ Hydrogen is the future”

While India experiments with the different types of alternative fuels, what's clear is that the future will see the emergence of greener technologies designed to make vehicles emit greener exhaust. Affordability, availability and consumer acceptance as always will be the three-point mantra if they are to prove a challenge to the current demand for fossil fuels.

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