Ethanol as alternative fuel

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You can’t drink and drive, but your car can and I’m not kidding! Alcohol in its purest form can drive cars, and it is common knowledge that alcohol (spirit) has the burning capacity, that is, it is flammable and therefore has the ability to produce heat and pressure while it burns, just like petrol or diesel.

What alcohol? Ethanol is a clear, colorless liquid, also known as ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, and EtOH. Ethanol could be produced from starch- or sugar-based crops, and it has the same chemical formula regardless of what it is produced from. It is primarily produced from crops, such as corn grain (as in the United States), sugar cane (as in Brazil), or from cellulosic feedstocks (such as wood chips or crop residues), with the US and Brazil being the top producers of ethanol in the world. (Link)

But why? It is traditional to mix ethanol with gasoline (petrol) for various benefits. Usage of ethanol helps reduce CO2 emissions. Also, blending ethanol with petrol makes it commercially viable as ethanol is less expensive than petrol/diesel. And, ethanol has a higher octane number than petrol, hence has the ability to provide greater power and performance. Furthermore, ethanol serves as a cleaning agent for the engine in the long run as well. And, ethanol could be used to increase the octane number of fuel to prevent engine knocking. Finally, reducing dependence on petroleum products directly reduces the import of fossil fuels, thereby strengthening the economy. And, unlike with petroleum, ethanol could be produced from plant crops and doesn’t need an elaborate refinery/factory setup. (Link)


India is one of the top producers of ethanol in the world. Ethanol as fuel has indirect benefits of empowering the rural population to become cultivators of crops that could be used in its production, thereby creating job opportunities to delocalize employment. And, the production of ethanol from crops captures CO2 (which can be used for producing dry ice or other uses of CO2 and) that directly offsets the CO2 that is produced when the fuel is burnt, thereby impacting the environment less than conventional fuels. Ethanol in its near-pure form is used in high-performance vehicles in some prestigious races like the Indianapolis 500, where the fuel is E98 (containing 2% gasoline and 98% ethanol), because of the higher power (Octane number) of ethanol over petrol. Conventionally, ethanol is mixed with petrol in a ratio of 10:90, called E10 fuel, and can be used in a regular petrol engine without modification of the engine.

Then why not?

Blending ethanol with conventional fuels can reduce the mileage of vehicles. And, blending ethanol with gasoline in a ratio of more than 10:90 needs upgrades to existing gasoline engines. The infrastructure for storing and distributing ethanol-based fuel needs an upgrade. (Link) Also, using food products for the production of fuel is likely to impact the food industry and also basic food production principles. And, the quantity of ethanol produced from the crop depends on the quality of the growing season of that crop. (Link)


In India, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MoPNG) first proposed ethanol as automotive fuel back in 2003 with the initial notification mandating a 5% blending and increasing it to 10% subsequently. In 2008, however, in order to curb India’s carbon footprint and future environmental impact, the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy drafted a national policy leading to a target of 20% blending of bio-ethanol by 2023. This also helped in reducing India’s dependence on OPEC for crude oil. By the way, India spends around 7 lakh crore on crude oil imports. (Link, Link)

Conclusion Electric vehicles are already being projected as the future of automobiles. So, can ethanol hold its ground on the same canvas? To be honest, both ethanol and electricity have a myriad of challenges in terms of production, sustainability, impact on ecology, and whatnot. Electric cars rely on electricity, which is generated by burning coal unless all of the electricity is obtained from renewable sources, and on lithium-ion batteries, which India has an insignificant quantity in reserve. This means increased environmental damage and greater dependence on foreign imports, which will lead to forex depletion, whereas the ethanol option does impact the environment as well, albeit less than conventional fossil fuels, and does need a quantum shift in production, infrastructure, and maintenance. Hence, choosing one over the other is a question for the future. Happy motoring till then!

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