As crude oil prices hit a record high, the Malawi government has launched a project to ensure that all vehicles in the country switch to the cheaper and greener alternative fuel - ethanol - in a few years.
Besides promoting the production of ethanol from sugar molasses, the 5-year US$1 million project, funded by the Malawi government, is investigating the possibility of converting conventional vehicles into dual-fuel vehicles, or flexible-fuel - 'flex-fuel' - vehicles (FFVs), which can run on a combination of fuels.
"The country's decision to use ethanol is in line with procedures aimed at emission reduction as demanded by the [UN Framework on Climate Change]," said Kendron Chisale, Malawi's deputy director of science and technology. "In the end, Malawi will benefit because we will be able to mitigate some of the climate change related natural catastrophes." The department hopes to have some adapted vehicles on the road within a year.
Freeman Kalirani, a researcher at the government-owned Lilongwe Technical College, led a team that modified a Mitsubishi Pajero to run on ethanol or petrol, or a combination of ethanol and petrol in a single tank.
He said the research team would continue comparing the engine performance of ethanol-powered and petrol-driven vehicles. "We will test and check on the long-term effects of ethanol on the fuel system of vehicles. We will also gather data on the performance of a flex vehicle and build capacity for Malawians to maintain ethanol-driven or flex vehicles."
The modified vehicle completed a test drive of over 2,100km at an average speed of 110km/hr on ethanol; consumption at 8km/litre was high because of the speed and age of the car; newer vehicles consume between 10km/litre and 15km/litre.
Import flex-fuel vehicles
According to Presscane Ltd, 1 of the 2 companies producing ethanol, Malawi has been using ethanol-blended fuel since the energy crisis in the early 1970s. Petroleum companies such as BP Malawi, TOTAL Malawi and Chevron Malawi blend 10 percent ethanol with 90 percent petrol.
|A switch to ethanol would not only benefit the environment but also create employment opportunities in the country's sugarcane industry, and help Malawi save forex currently being spent on fuel imports|
Between 1995 and 2000, Malawi imported around 80 to 90 million litres of petrol each year, with the cost rising from $13 million to $36.1 million over the same period. In the first half of the year, a barrel of bioethanol in Brazil, was half the price of a barrel of oil, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation. The current price of crude oil is about $90 per barrel.
Malawi's department of science and technology, in partnership with the privately owned Ethanol Company of Malawi (ETHCO), is also promoting the importing of Brazilian 'flex-fuel' vehicles that can run on ethanol. Matthews Chikaonda, chief executive officer of Press Corporation Limited, a local conglomerate that owns ETHCO, said the country produced enough molasses, a by-product of making sugar, to produce ethanol.
He said the country would save millions of dollars once all vehicles started using locally produced ethanol instead of imported petroleum. "A switch to ethanol would not only benefit the environment but also create employment opportunities in the country's sugarcane industry, and help Malawi save forex currently being spent on fuel imports."
More research before production
Chikaonda said the only two companies producing ethanol from sugar molasses in Malawi were ETHCO, which produces 7 million litres of ethanol a year at its plant in Dwangwa, a town in central Malawi, and Presscane, another Press Corporation investment, which delivers 10.8 million litres from its plant in southern Malawi.
Each of the factories has a design capacity of 16 million litres a year, but is operating below capacity because of the low availability of molasses. The department of science and technology said there was a possibility that the two factories could produce ethanol at full capacity because there was room for for expansion in existing sugarcane plantations.
ETHCO general manager Daniel Liwimbi said there was need for proper government planning to expand ethanol production capacity to cater for the whole country. "Government should plan to increase production if the whole project is to be a success. With increased production from sugarcane molasses, capacity could reach up to 30 million litres per [cane-growing] season."
Some consumers cautioned that further research was needed and government should tread carefully in its search for alternative cheaper fuels. "It is too early to start celebrating. Let us be honest with ourselves and answer questions such as, 'are we ready to meet the demand once we abandon imported fuels?' An honest answer would be 'no' at this point in time," said Marcel Phiri, a car owner in the commercial capital of Blantyre.
Mayeso Mzunga, who transports goods, said he welcomed the news but also stressed the need for more research. He suggested the concurrent promotion of imported petroleum and locally made ethanol until such time as the country was ready "to fully go ethanol".