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DNA Explainer: What is the Government-proposed E20 fuel? How is it different from the petrol in use now?

The Indian government recently preponed the target to bring the average ethanol blending of petrol in the country to 20 percent by 2025. It plans to roll out the ethanol blended E20 petrol from April 2023. E20 fuel is 80 percent petrol mixed with 20 percent ethanol.

Around half of the petrol currently sold in in India contains 10 percent ethanol (E10). the rest being sold is unblended (E0). The first phase of the program targets country-wide E10 availability by April, 2022.

The policy push has several benefits. It is expected to reduce air pollution, being lesser polluting than petrol. The government foresees oil import savings to the tune of Rs. 30,000 crores annually.

It also promises to create a whole new industry. To give impetus to the program, the government will be channelling 6 million tons of sugar into production of ethanol every year by 2025.

Ethanol offers similar efficiency at a lower cost compared to petrol. However, to make a vehicle run on E20, there are certain updates and modifications that are needed to engines. E20 rollout will mirror the shift India took from leaded to unleaded petrol.

Let us understand what is Ethanol based fuel, and how the blended E20 petrol will be different than what most vehicles fill up from gas stations today.

What is Ethanol fuel?

Ethanol fuel is ethyl alcohol, the same type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks. 

It is most commonly utilized as a motor fuel, primarily as a biofuel addition in gasoline. Biomass is commonly utilized for making ethanol, such as corn or sugarcane. India’s abundance of sugarcane production is pivotal to the push towards ethanol based fuel.

How different Ethanol fuel is from petrol?

Petrol has more energy than ethanol; a tank full of ethanol contains approximately 30 percent less energy than the same quantity of petrol.

As per a Niti Aayog paper published in June 2021, using E20 fuel in 4 wheelers designed for E0 petrol and then calibrated for E10 will result in an estimated loss in fuel efficiency of 6-7 percent. For E0 two wheelers upgraded to E10, using E20 will result in a 3-4 percent decrease in efficiency.

For newer 4-wheel vehicles that are designed for E10 petrol and upgraded for E20, there will be a negligible loss of 1-2 percent in efficiency.

New flex engines

As the next step of the program, India has chosen to allow ethanol-based ‘flex engines,’ which use local farm produce instead of fossil fuels to power vehicles. Flex engines are those that can run at any ratio of ethanol blending from E20 to E100.

These types of engines and cars are not new. The Fiat 147, launched in 1978 in Brazil, was the first production car to run solely on ethanol.

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