THE CASE FOR LPG AS A VERSATILE FUEL
MUHAMMAD ALI MALIK
May 11 - 17, 2009
We are nearing the end of the oil age on the energy time line. Resources that existed earlier were either out of our technological reach or considered to cost intensive to be given a serious thought, are at the cutting edge of our energy needs. Imagine telling somebody thirty years ago, of wind turbines, battery powered cars which could go for a 150 kms, a hydrocarbon fuel with low emissions, these things have become a reality now. All this has came within the last few years owing to advancement in science and our better understanding of nature. Smart cars with lean emissions are the new successors to the old gas guzzlers of yesterday. Environment has become a serious issue, governments are obliged to pass new laws on environment protection and preservation.
Lahore, for example; is not the same city it was thirty years ago, with the increase in population, the numbers of cars has increased. A layer of smog covers the city, in winters it is responsible for lower temperatures, condensation, poor visibility, increase in respiratory diseases and host of other problems. The use of conventional hydrocarbons in transport is directly responsible for atmospheric pollution in big cities. It forms a major part of the environmental degradation in the world. Switching over to cleaner hydrocarbons could be the breathing space we would need till we find holy grail of energy in cold fusion. LPG is one such fuel which provides the versatility in use with extremely low emissions.
Unlike it wider use in developing economies, we in Pakistan had been content with LPG in cylinders used primarily for domestic cooking. This has been going on since LPG was first introduced by Shell in the early sixties. During the later years, whatever the LPG we produced was almost sufficient for our needs. Large investments leading to the growth of the industry were still a pipe dream. Most of the companies engaged in the LPG trade were buying it from state owned companies. Its use was limited only as a cooking fuel, with some portions illegally siphoned off for use in small commercial transport. The LPG industry in Pakistan had nothing significant to say about itself.
During the early part of 2003 things began to change. Foreign investment leading to the construction of the country's first LPG terminal at Port Qasim was about to change things forever. In a country with heavy reliance on natural gas, the true potential of LPG was never realised. It was a fuel of the poor and was used only by those not connected to the natural gas grid. LPG offers much more than its use a cooking fuel.
In North America, LPG has been successfully used for supplementing natural gas supplies. LPG-Air Mix or Syn Gas (Synthetic Gas) has been used since early 1900s. Small amounts of LPG is mixed with compressed air to form a gaseous mixture which is injected into the gas grid to increase volumes and pressure, especially in winters. This mixture perfectly blends within the system with the same calorific value or heating power as natural gas. The user doesn't know the difference and uses it with the same appliance without any modifications. It works well during the peak winter months, with little extra cost. This process is referred to as peak load shaving by industry professionals.
In small isolated towns where gas grid is economically not the answer, Syn Gas plants are installed to the local gas grid. The customers are charged according to the gas they consume and the local LPG reservoir is replenished through large 20 MT LPG bowsers. A Syn Gas plant is successfully working in Gawadar and more are planned for Zhob, Pishin and other cities in Balochistan and northern areas of Pakistan. Such town gas projects would have endless uses in Pakistan. It could help stem the deforestation of parts of northern NWFP and Kashmir where wood is the basic fuel.
The use of LPG as an automotive fuel has arrived fairly late in Pakistan. It has been illegally used in small commercial vehicles, like taxis, three wheelers and small pick up trucks but was officially approved only a couple of years ago. The first LPG filling station is yet to start operations. In our quest to use over-subsidised natural gas as auto fuel, we have overlooked the 15 million or so vehicles running on LPG autogas. The government has recently decided to ply around 10,000 buses in five large cities on natural gas, without a thought that gas load shedding is a reality for at least five months year. A single Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) buses running 300 kms a day would consume gas equivalent to about 19 households. LPG give them the answer to their problems. There are around 500 LPG buses in Vienna running for the past 30 years. Tokyo has 90,000 taxis and there a couple of thousand buses in the city of Guandong in China. LPG could share the load with natural gas with almost negligible particulate and carbon emissions. Imagine how LPG buses in Lahore would contribute to solving its pollution problems.
Natural gas extraction provides 60% of the world's LPG while the remaining comes from fractional distillation of crude oil. Industry estimates speak of uninterrupted LPG supplies for next fifty years or so. In Pakistan where 55% of power is generated by natural gas, LPG could ease off the situation, leaving more natural gas for use as feedstock in the production of fertilisers. Stand alone power plants running on LPG or Syn Gas could well be the answer to the power crises. In view of the transportability of LPG over natural gas, it could be taken anywhere by road and stored in large tanks. Its gas and liquid properties gives it the necessary ability as a very versatile fuel.
The wider industrial and commercial use of LPG would not limit its use in cooking and heating sectors. The use of LPG bottles in cooking both at home and in small cafes would cut down their reliance on natural gas. There are a series of motels on the M-2 motorway using medium size LPG tanks connected to a local gas network. They are successfully using it for cooking, space heating and in boilers. In certain countries, small and medium size LPG tanks are being used in mountainous areas, tourist resorts, camping sites, etc.
LPG as an alternate fuel gives us more choice in the use of existing hydrocarbons. It gives us the freedom of portability, wider use in different applications, both industrial and domestic. Its wider availability coupled with its environment friendly characteristics would last with us till we find we find a substitute for oil and gas.