Sucheta Dalal :CNG crisis: are we deliberately suppressing cheaper options?
Sucheta Dalal

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CNG crisis: are we deliberately suppressing cheaper options?  

April 25, 2002

The apex court's order forcing Delhi's transport fleet to switch from diesel to compressed natural gas has severely affected public transport in Delhi.

India simply does not have enough CNG, and the petroleum minister and the chairman of the Gas Authority of India have made it emphatically clear that there is little chance of increased supply in the foreseeable future.

Finally, it is the common people, who are suffering the most of the Supreme Court's effort to reduce pollution.

Taxi drivers queue up for as many as six to seven hours to refuel their vehicles and the public transport bus service has been severely truncated. Since the beginning of April, ordinary people are wilting under the summer heat, waiting endlessly for the elusive Delhi Transport Corporation buses.

Mumbai too is getting ready for its share of trouble. Its 45,000 taxis went on strike on Wednesday to draw the court's attention to the fuel situation and buy time to switch from diesel engines to CNG.

However, after a four-year battle, where government played a dubious role, the Court is in no mood to relent.

Environmentalists, whose "public interest" litigation has precipitated the CNG experiment, blame the government saying that there is plenty of CNG available, but it is being diverted to industry.

That may well be true, but the moot point is: is CNG as clean as it is touted to be? International research, in fact, insists that CNG, or for that matter LPG, is not an absolutely clean fuel - although they are certainly better than diesel and gasoline, they are not without harmful emissions.

But activists dismiss everything that does not fit their point of view as industry propaganda.

For instance, CNG eliminates particulate emissions and visible smoke, but need a catalytic converter to eliminate unburnt hydro carbons, oxides of nitrogen due to high engine temperature operation and PM-6 particles.

Incidentally the CNG & LPG catalytic converters are manufactured only by two firms in the world and are cost approximately Rs 50,0000. Obviously, there is an international pressure group that continues to push for the use of CNG around the world.

In India, too, the definite beneficiaries of the environmental activism and Supreme Court's order, so far, are manufacturers of commercial vehicles as well as their steel and component manufacturers.

The Economic Times Investor Guide of April 15 was celebrating the increase in stock prices of big vehicle manufacturers in India, who had already built up inventories in anticipation of a rush or orders for CNG fuelled buses. Since it is initially a sellers' market, the manufacturers are set to make super profits.

Moreover, the high prices of vehicles fitted with CNG kits hide the fact that all these buses still need expensive, three-way catalytic converters fitted to their exhaust pipes to truly eliminate pollutants. But that is the subject for another column.

The immediate question is: should the Supreme Court mandate what fuel should be used in the country or should it restrict its orders to the quality of exhaust emissions that will be permitted (as suggested by the respected Mashelkar Committee)?

After all, technology is changing everyday and providing multiple options seems the most sensible thing to do.

For instance, BMW in Germany has already achieved a substantial breakthrough in using hydrogen - to fuel cars. Although it is a substantially cleaner fuel, the problem is to create an entirely new delivery mechanism which will enable a switch to hydrogen or at least offer a workable alternative.

Continuous experimentation with fuel, technology and equipment will continue to throw up exciting new alternatives to the serious issue of environmental pollution. And we in India can hardly afford to be blinded by powerful NGOs or manufacturer lobbies that are working overtime to suppress even the hint of better alternatives.

An award winning Indian invention is already under pressure from the single fuel order and the manufacturers' lobbying, even as it awaits patent registration in India and the United States.

This is an electronic catalytic converter based on microwave plasma technology, invented by S Gopalakrishnan who owns a small company called Hydrodrive Systems and Controls Pvt. Limited.

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The Chennai-based mechanical engineer says that his converter can control exhaust emissions on all four-stroke internal combustion engines using diesel, leaded and unleaded petrol and gaseous fuels. Moreover, it is easy to install and costs just Rs 6,000 (for cars and Rs 12,000 for buses).

Here is how it works: Unlike regular catalytic converters which try to clean up exhaust gas through the tailpipe, this is a pre-engine device which is an onboard fuel reformulator; it cleans fuel on the intake side and changes the kinetics of the combustion process, preventing the creation of dirty exhaust irrespective of the fuel used. Gopalakrishnan claims a minimum 60 per cent reduction in harmful emissions and a 10 per cent increase in fuel efficiency on the vehicles fitted so far.

When the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review awarded him the Asian Innovation Gold Award, it led to some 2,000-odd users fitting the product on cars, buses, auto-rickshaws and trucks and confirming its efficacy.

Gopalkrishnan has now registered a patent in the Philippines with the help of a Chinese company (he refuses to reveal the name as yet) with which he plans a joint venture in China.

Last week the Mashelkar Committee, examined the product in Chennai and was impressed enough to send it for further tests and verification.

G V Ramakrishna, the former Petroleum Secretary, and Divestment Commission Chairman, says: "It is in public interest that this converter should at least be given a serious look, because it involves a large saving of public funds." He says: as against the expenditure of over Rs 1,200 crore (Rs 12 billion) that will have to be incurred for CNG conversion in Delhi alone, using these electronic catalytic converters would cost less than Rs 1.2 crore (Rs 12 million)."

The savings are more startling at the national level. The Mashelkar Committee has estimated that in order to upgrade vehicles to Euro-3 and refineries to produce an acceptable fuel, the change over cost would be Rs 60,000 crore (Rs 600 billion). Using an electronic catalytic converter to upgrade all of India's 10,000,000-vehicle population will cost just Rs 6,000 crore (Rs 60 billion).

For taxi drivers, the cost of retrofitting vehicles with CNG kits will cost around Rs 40,000 each. Doesn't a Rs 6,000 product then demand serious consideration?

But all this is easier said than done. Vested interests in India (in this case industrialists, babus and environmentalists) are so powerful and entrenched that there is little scope for the product to even get a fair trial.

But Gopalkrishnan himself is torn between various priorities. Should he concentrate on the joint-venture in China or fight domestic lobbies?

Should he work hard on getting his patent applications processed or should he spend time replying to the suspicions of academics, environmentalists who haven't so much as studied the product but are quick to dismiss it because it upsets their calculations.

-- Sucheta Dalal