India’s first ‘flex fuel’ car, a Toyota sedan that can run on one or multiple fuel types and developed as part of a new pilot aimed at deleveraging the country’s dependence on imported fossil fuels for transportation, is set for an unveiling later this month.
The pilot has been initiated as part of a government-led push to carmakers for adopting alternative fuels and the sedan, most likely a Camry, equipped with flex fuel tech will be part of a nationwide pilot that aims to replicate the commercial deployment of this particular technology in other markets such as Brazil, Canada and the US.
A flex fuel, or flexible fuel, vehicle has an internal combustion engine (ICE), but unlike a regular petrol or diesel vehicle, this can run on more than one type of fuel, or even a mixture of fuels. The most common versions use a blend of petrol and ethanol or methanol, but these engines are also equipped to run on 100 per cent petrol or ethanol as well. This is made possible by equipping the engine with a fuel mix sensor and an engine control module (ECM) programming that senses and automatically adjusts for any ratio of designated fuels. In an interview with The Indian Express in August, Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari said the push to car makers to adopt flexible engines is part of a broader strategy to cut down on the country’s dependence on imported crude in the medium-to-long run.
It is learnt that Toyota will likely launch the flex fuel version of the sedan on September 28, though the company has officially not said anything on this or disclosed technical details or any other specifications of the car.
Flex fuel vehicles have one fuel system, and most components are the same as those found in a conventional petrol-only car. Some special ethanol-compatible components are required to adjust to the different chemical properties and energy content in ethanol or methanol, such as modifications to the fuel pump and fuel injection system. The ECM is also calibrated to accommodate the higher oxygen content of ethanol.
According to IHS Markit, as of 2018, there were over 21 million flex fuel vehicles in the United States, but Brazil is the biggest market and a leader in this segment. Other than an ethanol-compatible fuel system and a different powertrain calibration, flex fuel vehicles are similar to their conventional petrol-only counterparts.
The most important benefit is that the use of ethanol blending sharply lowers harmful pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulphur, and carbon and nitrogen oxides. Another obvious benefit is that blending will help cutback on oil imports for fueling vehicles.
But there are problems: a flex fuel car typically takes a small hit on fuel efficiency when using ethanol for motive power, ranging from between 4 per cent and 8 per cent. So, while fuel economy is generally lower with increased levels of ethanol (engines are optimised for petrol), on the flip side, many flex fuel vehicles have improved acceleration performance when operating on higher ethanol blends.
A major problem with ethanol blending is that crops such as sugarcane are usually very water-intensive. A NITI Aayog report suggested that in 2019-20, of the total ethanol produced in the country, over 90 per cent came from sugarcane alone. Plus, sugarcane is a politically important crop in states such as Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, and there is a perceived political angle to the ethanol/methanol blending push.
Currently, around 9.5 per cent ethanol blending with petrol has been achieved in fuel dispensed in pumps in most metros and it is likely that the targeted 10 per cent ethanol blending will be achieved by November 2022. But this is slated for a major bump up, with the government’s 2025 target of 20 per cent blending of ethanol in petrol envisaged in its National Biofuel Policy 2018.
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From a macro perspective, a big advantage being cited is that countries such as Brazil have the ability to be flexible on the degree of the mix depending on the crude prices, varying it when energy prices surge like just after the Ukraine war. The precondition being that the vehicular fleet has been equipped to adjust to this fuel mix of varying degrees.
In Brazil, nearly all cars are required to be equipped to handle fuel blends with a minimum of 22 per cent ethanol, with Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras being mandated to buy ethanol and dispense the mix at retail pumps.
As a result, across most cities in Brazil, practically no light vehicles run on pure petrol. But there is also a government subsidy to narrow the price gap of higher ethanol blends, just to make the proposition viable. That is another factor that would have to be considered as India steps up its fuel blending plan.