Gasoline, diesel, gas and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) are widely known and used fuels. But there are also other alternative fuels that can be used independently or mixed with the aforementioned fuels in varying proportions.
Motivations for alternative fuels may vary depending on individual circumstances. These include a cleaner environment, local resource allocation, cost reduction and foreign exchange savings. Here we will discuss fuels already developed such as bioethanol and methanol. We can also discuss biogas in passing, as its resource base exists but is not used as widely as it could have been.
The main alternative fuels are ethanol (bioethanol) and methanol. Pakistan State Oil (PSO) had introduced E5 (blend of 5% ethanol and 95% gasoline) more than a decade ago. For unknown reasons or due to market skepticism, the E5 rating was discontinued.
However, surprisingly, the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority (Ogra) continues to impose tariffs on this product, likely leaving options for Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) who might have new ideas on this and would like to enter this segment. Ethanol is produced locally by the sugar industry and is exported. Competition with export opportunities may be another constraint. The economics of exports relative to an equivalent quantity of gasoline should be re-examined.
Technically, there should be no skepticism since E5 and even E10 are widely used in most countries, including the US, EU, ASEAN and other regions. Even higher percentages of ethanol are being considered. India is already doing this in the case of E5 and E10. Its target was even to introduce E20 by 2030. However, recently India brought forward its target to 2025.
The motivation is that the environment related to cleaner fuels has become a major issue in South Asia, as we see the smog problem on both sides of the border.
The second motivation is the resource base. Bioethanol can now be produced from agricultural waste and even municipal solid waste.
On both sides of the border, agricultural waste such as rice stubble is burned and contributes to smog and pollution. There are also other crop wastes. Likewise, many MSW are burned in both countries.
In the new circumstances where environmental problems have become so serious, issues E5 and E10 must be addressed again and appropriate programs and policies must be introduced.
Now we come to methanol (CH3OH), which is a versatile chemical. It is used as both a starting chemical for the production of many chemical and petrochemical products. It is also used as an energy compound. It is mixed with gasoline and diesel like ethanol.
In low percentage mixtures it can be used without any modification to the engines. However, in higher percentages, some small adjustments are required in IC motors. Methanol is a clean fuel that can replace all fuels, in part or in whole, 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 in cookers. In Africa, many countries have adopted it. Methanol is widely used in China, in ordinary vehicles and specialized vehicles.
A wide range of methanol blends are used in China, from M5 (5% methanol) to M100 (100% methanol). It is also used in industries for boilers and electrical applications. In the West, however, its use as pure methanol is limited. Only 3% mixing is allowed. Methanol is also used in fuel cells which have many applications, particularly in automobiles. Methanol is the fuel of choice for the global shipping fleet, in which bunker fuel oil is being replaced rapidly.
There are two types of methanol; fossil and green. Green methanol is produced mainly from green materials such as biomass. Fossil methanol is produced from gas and coal.
In China, all methanol is produced from coal via coal gasification. Nowadays, CO2 from industrial or power plant exhaust is also converted into methanol. Why methanol is important to us. We have coal from Thar which can be used to produce methanol and methane through syngas. Methanol is nothing new. There are more than 90 methanol plants around the world producing 120 million tonnes per year. China is betting big on this. It consumes 9% of its total fuel consumption in the form of methanol.
A large, credible Chinese company had shown interest in a methanol project in Pakistan. Methanol would be 30% cheaper than gasoline and diesel.
Since methanol is liquid, it is much easier to transport than gas, which requires a gas network for its transport. Above all, methanol would contribute to self-sufficiency and save foreign exchange.
Resource-based industrialization is perhaps one of the most viable development paths. In addition, the issues and trends in local and international markets are important. It is unclear whether gasification of Thar coal, involving the production of methanol and methane, would be acceptable to international agencies.
China is taking this route which could be interested in it. A carbon footprint must be prepared to examine the environmental and greenhouse gas (GHG) acceptability of Thar coal gasification. The replacement of diesel is a positive aspect of the project. A biomass mix can make this project more attractive.
The most immediate opportunity is to exploit the biogas resource. It can be used in four forms; small domestic factories, community factories, large factories connected to the gas network and bio-CNG plants.
There is a large resource base in the form of manure, food waste, agricultural waste and MSW (the organic component). Biogas also contains fertilizer as a byproduct. There are other products like CO2 which is used in refrigeration and the cold chain.
Compared to processing plants like those at methanol, ethanol, and petroleum refineries, even very large biogas plants do not require capital exceeding $20 million. This can be managed by local investors.
However, the government must organize a program and a policy. The challenges are multiple: investments, financing, prices, land, fuel supply agreements, integration of local communities, etc.
Biogas is very dear to European environmentalists. Some grants or concessional financing may be available from bilateral and multilateral sources, including the carbon market.
Nothing is a panacea. All energy sources have strengths and weaknesses. An energy mix is optimized, which can maximize revenue or production and minimize inputs and costs.
The availability of local resources can be an important criterion. Exports, foreign policy and the availability of financial resources are all important factors to take into account. Detailed studies would be necessary for the selection and selection of products, processes and technology.
Additionally, this is a very risky transition period. Many competing options are emerging. We don’t know which one will succeed? For a poor developing country, the consequences could be even more serious.
The writer is a former member of the Energy and Planning Commission and author of several books on the energy sector.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 20th2023.