Janaka Perera reviews alternative fuel options that are available globally

Even before the ongoing oil crisis hit Sri Lanka, there were calls to promote clean fuel sources and an energy efficient trans­port system. And concern about the impact of fossil fuels on the environment is driving the quest for suitable alternatives worldwide.

Cities acting on this are banning polluting fossil fuelled vehicles and many are taking measures to reduce the number of cars in their city centres. In London, a ‘congestion charge system’ has been enforced to reduce the number of vehicles.

Biodiesel and renewable diesel are two of the most widely used alternative energies in commercial transportation.

In Sri Lanka, encouraging the introduction of low emission electric and hybrid vehicles such as electrified three wheelers, boat services, buses and so on, as well as electrification of the railways along the coastline and the establishment of energy efficient and environmentally sustainable transport systems by 2030, were cited for developing urban transport options in a Western Region Megapolis.

The Railway Electrification and Modernisation Project (REMP) is yet to get off the ground although it was much publicised in 2016. With the latest proven technologies, it was supposed to be South Asia’s most modern and efficient suburban railway!

Ideal Motors introduced its ‘Moksha’ model, which was the first Sri Lankan made complete electric vehicle in July 2022. It was inspired by the BMC Mini Moke, which was one of the most popular cars worldwide in the late 1960s.

Businesses could also completely redesign their logistics flows and aim for radical improvements. This will require in-depth analyses of the type of flows, customer requirements, financial capabilities and organisational challenges.

While electric vehicles have become popular worldwide, ethanol too has been cited as a potential substitute for petrol on the roads, as well as in the water and air. Less energy dense than petrol, it’s made from cash crops such as sugar cane, corn and soybeans. Ethanol has the potential to be a total replacement for petrol – or work in combination with it – so that vehicles can be weaned off fossil fuels on the road to sustainability.

In the past decade, ethanol has gained popularity as an alternative transportation fuel due to its high octane number, low cetane number and high heat of vaporisation. Ethanol produced through a biological process is carbon neutral. Nevertheless, bioethanol makes up less than 10 percent of total petrol consumption every year due to many factors – one of which is the high cost of production.

Renewable diesel’s greatest benefit is that it can directly replace its traditional counterpart in common diesel engines. Both biodiesel and renewable diesel are non-fossil fuels made from organic waste such as vegetable oil and animal fats.

Solar power too has been proposed as a replacement for fossil fuels. When a vehicle makes use of its solar panels, energy from the sun supplements its need to rely on fossil fuel.

In the same vein as solar powered vehicles, hydrogen as a form of energy has also been in the news. Hydrogen as a fuel supplement works most effectively when water is cut through by an electric current. It releases the hydrogen that’s connected to oxygen in the water’s chemical bond or when vehicles make use of steam-methane reforming.

The mixing of conventional and alternative transportation fuels has historically been practised to obtain blends with advantages over conventional energy. They include more desirable combustion properties, lower regulated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, petroleum displacement, increased range, lower costs, and being used as a bridging technology to promote alternative fuel production and infrastructure.

For example, a blend of petrol and ethanol (up to 10 percent) is dispensed from existing stations into petrol vehicles in the US, providing an early market for ethanol.

About eight million vehicles globally reportedly run on blends containing alternative fuels but it is unlikely that any of these will achieve the worldwide usage of petrol anytime soon since they are too expensive to produce.

Nevertheless, Sri Lankans need to be educated on the importance of minimising dependence on fossil fuels. Successful implementation of mitigative actions requires transformational changes in the governance of the transport sector.

Apart from regulations and laws such as the provision of tax benefits, there should be subsidies or loans granted to people for their green initia­tives. Countrywide awareness needs to be conducted through national media on the necessity to adopt clean energy lifestyles for individual and collective benefits. And people should be educated on the need for joint action to effect transformation.

The ongoing fuel crisis poses lessons to be learnt. It has shown the need for changes to govern­ment policies, as well as indi­vidual conduct, without which such occurrences will become commonplace.