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Don’t drink but blend!

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 15 November 2012 00:00

This was a short line I coined in a submission to a national committee around 2005/’06 when Sri Lanka was seriously contemplating both ‘Mathata Thitha’ and biofuels for transport.

At that time price of crude oil was rising up to US$ 150 a barrel and there was the serious effort to understand an alternative. The prices never reached $ 150 per barrel – it reached a maximum of US$ 147 – and as prices came down so did the interest in alternatives.

We also witnessed the Minister of Finance (the President) travelling to Parliament to deliver the Budget speech on a bio-ethanol-powered Micro, ably supported by Master Divers – a unique event that went largely unnoticed. Thus, time bears testimony to the seriousness of purpose.

Of course in addition to energy prices the internal conflict situation was getting heated up and juggling all these issues was no easy task and the waning of interest at that time on biofuels is somewhat understandable. However, with the transport sector and the entire energy sector in serious crisis again today, minus the internal conflict, I think the call can be made once again!

Winning the economic war will involve stabilising the energy sector as what one can do at anytime depends on the availability of energy. The development of an economy is highly intertwined with energy availability. Self-reliance in energy is quite important to Sri Lanka and many countries pursue policies in that direction quite aggressively.

Brazil and bio-ethanol

An emerging economy of today, Brazil, one of the BRIC countries, can be studied in this regard. The story of how it became a national case study for biofuel development is well worth considering.

The title some have suggested for Brazil is that it may be called the Saudi Arabia of Ethanol. The Brazilian State understood the difficulties that it was having in using valuable foreign exchange to bring in crude oil and decided to pursue sugarcane-based bio-ethanol as a transport fuel starting around 1975.

Some steps taken were low interest loans to setup distilleries, guaranteed purchase of ethanol by State-owned enterprises, sales tax incentives to stimulate purchase of vehicles by neat ethanol, favourable pricing of neat ethanol relative to blends, etc. Additional scientific measures were taken to develop better sugarcane varieties and yields and such developments will have benefits across other segments too.

Twenty-five years later with many interventions – State subsidies and support having played a crucial role – the country today even boasts of making planes which will use biofuels. Ipanema is an example of an aircraft maker which produces planes in Brazil to run on bio-ethanol. Brazil is even contemplating buying Portugal’s national carrier – talk about colonial master being bailed out by its one-time subjects!

Of course such is the economic power today and we know that it is planning to host both the Football World Cup as well as the Olympics. Reverse the process and you will not get there to be a strong economy – i.e. do not plan for the Olympics first and then expect the country to prosper economically; look at the Greeks on the streets today!

Sri Lanka

Brazil worked with ethanol from its sugarcane production. The excesses were transformed into ethanol. Current method of production in Sri Lanka is the use of molasses which is a by-product from the production of sugar that is sent to alcohol production. The produce of course has a big demand and the coffers are happy as excise revenue will flow in. Therein lies the catch of changing direction.

Economists are quick to point out the opportunity costs. Today in Sri Lanka there is huge foreign exchange outlay to purchase sugar as well and some sugar factories are not in production. Increasing sugar production can lead to additional quantities of molasses and save valuable exchange. The idea is after a while there will be excess alcohol and this should be transferred to biofuel production. There again economics come in.

Why not sell excess alcohol externally and then purchase fuel? I think one can win the economic argument in the short-term, but will not seriously serve the national economy in the long run. Also one can point out that the best way to be self-sufficient in sugar and alcohol is stop consuming, as one can see the benefits of such individual action. ‘Mathata Thitha’ in fact is directed for this.

If one waits for internal demand to be satisfied by production alone, I think we will have to wait for a long, long time! Simple economics is only based on consumption and avoids costing many other issues, though after the World Bank Economist’s publication of ‘Valuing the Earth,’ ideas have changed in mainstream too. Today we do champion green economics and sustainable consumption.

Alternative for transport fuels

Consider the importance of planning an alternative for transport fuels. Sri Lankan spends more than US$ 6 billion in purchasing crude oils and other refined products per year and the bill is growing and the embargo Iran is not only hurting Iran but Sri Lanka too. Currently even the purchases have given enough headaches to the nation.

Trying to cushion price fluctuations through the process of hedging has added even more woes to the kitty. All these troubles and heartaches, when beneficial alternatives exist. These will add to the local economy as well as create jobs.

Now I am not saying that we can switch to these alternatives overnight. Brazil with all its land indicated that you need time and support and should be prepared for a long haul. Please note that the State may be returning more or less the whole amount of remittances from Middle East to purchase oil. The sum of all such transactions finally may only leave pollution and social misery in the country.


Considering the limited land availability, it is unlikely that Sri Lanka can search for self-sufficiency in sugar, or all biofuels, through bio-ethanol. Yet even a 1% fuel displacement can mean Rs. 2 billion economic activity and certainly Sri Lanka can plan for more than 1% displacement. This is what is meant by blending.

Suitably processed alcohol is blended with petrol or one can use neat ethanol too, though for that currently quantities are not sufficient. This money will be channelled to provinces such as Monaragala where there are plenty of economic hardships and less investment and this should be a boon. The country should seek waste-based biofuels, both liquid and gaseous.

KLM demonstrated its first commercial biofuel flight from Amsterdam to Paris with biofuels derived from waste cooking oils. It was of course Branson’s Virgin Atlantic that was first in the air with biofuel blends but that was not a commercial flight.

It is no secret that why waste cooking oils are not available in Sri Lanka in some quantity to produce biodiesel – this is due to repeated reuse and cascaded small-scale practices which can only be seen as adding to the negative health of Sri Lankans. Some rules and practices need to come into play to serve society and in turn we can reap benefits by these practices.

It is also important that one develops a database of practical applications and knowledge. Hence a fuel ethanol plant is necessary and some program at university and research institute level to derive more engineering data. This should be applied with both machinery and process.

Sri Lanka well understands irrigation tanks, long roads, tall buildings, and hydropower stations, but fails significantly when it comes to process plants! This is a factor that has led to a number of structural issues facing the economy and the sooner this element is understood, the better it would be for the economy.

Call for courage

There is the need to display some courage as transformations of this magnitude are difficult and time-consuming. Sri Lanka is always quick to state why something useful cannot be done and I think this too is a topic that meets with such sayings.

We are quite versatile with excuses when it comes to productive implementations. We go overboard on the mundane in implementations which will really have no serious future contribution nor add to stability. You cannot push nature to give you more than it can, but working in partnership with nature with biofuels is a way to move on.

(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.)

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