Petrol, diesel, gas and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) are widely known and used fuels. But there are other alternative fuels that can be used independently or can be mixed with the aforementioned fuels in various proportions.
Incentives for alternative fuels may vary depending on individual circumstances. These are environmentally cleaner, local resources, lower costs and foreign exchange savings. We will discuss here already developed fuels such as bioethanol and methanol. We may also discuss biogas, as its resource base is there, but it is not as widely used as it could have been.
The main alternative fuels are ethanol (bio-ethanol) and methanol. Pakistan State Oil (PSO) had introduced E5 (5% blend of ethanol and 95% petrol) more than a decade ago. For unknown reasons or market skepticism, the E5 grade has dropped.
However, surprisingly, the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority (Ogra) continues to issue tariffs for this product possibly leaving options for those Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) who may have some fresh thoughts about it and may want to enter into this section. Ethanol is produced locally by the sugar industry and exported. Competition with export capabilities may be another constraint. The economics of exports versus an equivalent amount of gasoline should be re-examined.
Technically, there should be no skepticism, as E5 and even E10 are widely used in most countries, including the US, EU, ASEAN and other regions. Even higher ethanol rates are anticipated. India is already doing this in case of E5 and E10. It was aiming to introduce even E20 by 2030. However, recently, India pushed its target to 2025.
The motivation is that the cleaner fuel environment has become a major issue in South Asia as we see the smog issue on both sides of the border.
The second motivation is the resource base. Bioethanol can now be produced from plant waste and even MSW (municipal solid waste).
On both sides of the border, crop residues such as rice straw are burned and contribute to smog and pollution. There are other crop wastes. Similarly, there is a lot of MSW burning in both countries.
Under the new circumstances that environmental issues have become so serious, the issue of E5 and E10 should be revisited and the appropriate program and policy introduced.
Now we come to methanol (CH3OH), which is a versatile chemical. It is used both as a starting chemical for the production of many chemicals and petrochemicals. It is also used as an energy compound. It is mixed with gasoline and diesel as is ethanol.
In small percentage mixtures, it can be used without any change to the engines. At higher percentages, however, some minor adjustments to the IC motors are required. Methanol is a clean fuel that can replace all fuels, partially or completely, such as gasoline, diesel, LPG and kerosene. Methanol burns efficiently in all internal combustion engines without producing particulate matter, soot, NOx, Sox, etc.
Methanol is also mixed with LPG for use on cooking stoves. In Africa, many countries have adopted it. Methanol is widely used in China, in ordinary vehicles and specialized vehicles.
A wide range of methanol blend grades from M5 (5% methanol) to M100 (100% methanol) are used in China. It is also used in industries in boiler and power applications. In the West, however, its use in pure methanol form is limited. Only 3% mixture is allowed. Methanol is also used in fuel cells that have many applications, including automobiles. Methanol is the fuel of choice for the global shipping fleet where fuel oil is rapidly being replaced.
There are two types of methanol. petrified and green. Green methanol is mainly produced from green matter such as biomass. Fossilized methanol is produced from gas and coal.
In China, all methanol is produced from coal via the coal gasification route. These days, CO2 from industrial or power plant exhaust is also converted into methanol. Why methanol is important to us. We have Thar coal which can be used to produce methanol and methane through syngas. Methanol is nothing new. There are more than 90 methanol plants in the world producing 120 million tons per year. China is betting big on it. It consumes 9% of the total fuel consumption in the form of methanol.
A large and reputable Chinese company had shown interest in a methanol project in Pakistan. Methanol is reportedly 30% cheaper than gasoline and diesel.
Methanol as a liquid is much easier to transport than gas which requires a gas network for transport. Above all, methanol would contribute to self-sufficiency and save foreign exchange.
Resource-based industrialization is, perhaps, one of the most sustainable modes of development. Also, local and international market issues and trends are important. It is uncertain whether Thar coal gasification involving methanol and methane production would be acceptable to international organizations.
China uses this route which may be interested in it. A carbon balance needs to be prepared to examine the environmental and greenhouse gas (GHG) acceptability of Thar coal gasification. The displacement of diesel is a positive aspect of the project. A mixture of biomass can make this project more attractive.
The most ready opportunity is the exploitation of the biogas resource. It can be used in four forms. small domestic installations, community installations, large installations connected to the natural gas network and bio-CNG plants.
There is a large resource base in the form of manure, food waste, crop waste and MSW (the organic component). Biogas also has fertilizer as a by-product. There are other products like CO2 used in refrigeration and cold chain.
Compared to processing plants such as methanol, ethanol, and oil refineries, even very large biogas plants do not require large capital expenditures exceeding $20 million. It may be handled by local investors.
However, the government needs to organize a program and policy. There are multiple issues of investment, financing, tariffs, land, fuel supply agreements, integration of local bodies, etc.
Biogas is very popular with European environmentalists. Some grant or concessional financing may be available through bilateral and multilateral sources, including the carbon market.
Nothing is a panacea. All energy sources have strengths and weaknesses. An energy mix is optimized that can maximize revenue or output and minimize inputs and costs.
Availability of local resources can be a strong criterion. Exports, foreign policy and the availability of financial resources are all important factors to consider. Detailed studies will be required for the selection and selection of products, processes and technology.
Moreover, it is an extremely dangerous transitional time. So many competitive options appear. It is not known who will succeed? For a poor developing country, the consequences may be greater.
The author is a former member of the Energy, Planning Commission and the author of several books on the energy sector
Published in The Express Tribune, November 20u2023.
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