What's cooking?

Methanol can become a low-cost, housewife-friendly fuel

Published: Wednesday 31 March 1999

 Relief in sight for the rural (Credit:  amit shanker / cse)the energy crisis that raised its fearsome head in the 1970s is not really over yet. Threatening to bring the industrial world to a grinding halt, it finds new guises to sustain itself. The two billion people across the globe for whom clean, safe and cheap fuel remains inaccessible can vouch for it. They suffer because supplying fuel at affordable prices to the masses still remains an ambitious dream. While the urban population can always choose from various fuel, the same does not hold true for the rural communities, who use twigs, wood splinters and cow dung to fire their ovens. But these crude ovens and the cruder fuel they use come with attendant problems, the biggest being pollution and health implications.

Scientists seeking to bring relief to the masses have done considerable work on developing cleaner, cheaper alternatives. Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, has emerged as one such alternative, being cleaner and more efficient than most fossil fuels. It can be manufactured either on a large-scale, using natural gas as the source, or from biomass wastes from certain industries like pith (coir) from coconut husk, wood pieces and pith bagasse from the sugar industry. For years, rural communities have made methanol by wood distillation. Now efforts are on to produce it on a large scale from natural gas.

Methanol is economically viable, says Bengt Svbark, managing director, Ecotraffic r&d ab , Sweden. Some 390 million litres of the fuel can be produced annually at a cost of just us $0.28 (Rs 12) per litre, according to a recent Ecotraffic project report.

The report stresses that given current production techniques, methanol is more expensive than most other fossil fuels. However, as further research leads to newer, better production techniques, this will no longer be a problem. Moreover, unlike other fossil fuels, methanol has fewer adverse environmental impacts. In Sweden, environment and health damage costs are evaluated. And if this is taken into consideration, then methanol will not cost as much as other fuels, says Svbark of Ecotraffic.

Government Steps In rural areas, where wood is available in plenty, methanol is expected to find greater acceptance. Right now, most Indian villagers use chulha -- a three-sided oven open on top -- to cook their food. However, these ovens are plagued by a number of problems: including very poor efficiency, converting only 8 to 12 per cent of the burnt fuel into heat. Besides their smoke is highly carcinogenic.

The government has tried to help by launching programmes that teach villagers how to build improved ovens with clay, straw and cow dung. However, there has not been much improvement in their efficiency, and it still remains as low as 20 per cent. Clearly, the government has to do better.

For India's rural masses, methanol could offer a ready solution. A smokeless, convenient liquid fuel made from biomass, it can be used optimally in high-efficiency, low-cost stoves and ovens. Sweden-based firmElectrolux, has already been manufacturing such stoves. Because of their advanced design and fuel-burning efficiency, they can utilise thrice as much fuel as the ovens made with government support. Experts claim that using these advanced stoves, a family of five can cook their daily meals with just half or a litre of methanol.

One up on the other fuels Methanol enjoys a distinct edge over other fuels: it can be made without any hazardous or polluting by-products -- something that is beyond most fossil fuels. Its production, as pointed out by Svbark, is extremely cost-effective, requiring cheap and easily available natural gas or biomass as raw materials. Unlike petroleum and other conventional fossil fuels, methanol production does not need large, complex plants and expensive equipment. It can be easily produced in small, decentralised plants in rural areas. This will also create job opportunities for the villagers, says the managing director of Ecotraffic.

So why is methanol still largely unknown as a domestic fuel? The reasons are many. It has only been a few years since low-cost production methods have allowed easier production of methanol and introduced it as a major competitor in the fuel market.

Further, governments of developing nations have only recently begun showing interest in new fuel alternatives to solve their rural energy needs.

Some, such as the Indian government, still prefer to live in the past. According to J R Meena, director, ministry of non-conventional energy sources, ( mnes) , it is not viable to use methanol in India's rural areas. Conditions within the country are very different from that in Sweden, he says. If he is to be believed, then Indian villages are living with a tremendous fuelwood shortage. Most of the rural population do not have enough fuelwood to meet their daily requirements.

How can they use wood to produce methanol? he asks. Methanol is extremely toxic and can cause total blindness. So there is no question of promoting this fuel in rural areas. Instead the government is promoting improved chulhas for efficient use of wood fuel. It is being produced on a commercial scale to meet our industry requirements, he says. Of course, Meena overlooks the fuel utilisation efficiency of these improved chulhas, which is as poor as that of their cruder counterparts.

But the people at Ecotraffic are not ready to take no for an answer. Their report cites the African Leucaena tree that can be easily converted into methanol as it grows by about seven metres a year. Fast growth means more wood, thus more raw biomass from which methanol can be produced. Leucaena, says the report, can also be grown in India and the trees can prevent soil erosion on the hill slopes. Further, the leaves, rich in nitrogen and other essential micronutrients, could boost soil fertility.

While the Indian government decides to look the other way, methanol is rapidly gaining popularity as an alternative fuel across the world. Currently, annual production of methanol exceeds 25 million tonnes while some 17 million tonnes are exported. According to Savbark, the European commission has recently approved a project on a new biomass plant study that will be carried out during 1999-2000. The study will try to establish the efficiency of methanol as the best alternative to all conventional fossil fuels.

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