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Malawi Launches Research on “Green Vehicles”

In Malawi, the government has begun an ambitious plan to ensure that all vehicles switch to the cheaper alternative fuel, ethanol, within a few years. The administration says if the project is successful, it will help the country save foreign exchange now being spent on imported fuel. Voice of America English to Africa reporter Lameck Masina in Blantyre says the government of Malawi is fully funding the US $1 million project.

Local scientists are working on converting conventional vehicles to run on one or more fuels. One type of modification is called “flex” – it can use ethanol, petrol, or any mixture of the two. The other type can also use either petrol or ethanol but must be manually adjusted to the type of fuel being used. Converting a conventional vehicle to use ethanol costs about $650 dollars.

The government officially launched the project last September with a test drive of a Mitsubishi-Pajero converted to use ethanol. It covered a distance of 2,100 kilometers at an average speed of 110 km per hour. It went about eight kilometers on a liter of ethanol and 11 on a liter of petrol. But it was judged a success because ethanol is by far the cheaper of the two fuels.

Freeman Kalirani leads the research team at the government owned Lilongwe Technical College, which is under the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. He says the project is progressing well, “So far, I have converted four vehicles. Two vehicles -- the Nissan and a Mitsubitishi Pajero -- are running 100 percent on ethanol. And, there are other two vehicles that are running on either petrol or ethanol or any mixtures of the two.”

Kalirani says the modified Pajero has completed a test drive of 18,000 kilometers at an average speed of 110 km/hr and no major component of the engine was damaged, “When you listen to it, people don’t know that it is running on ethanol. The only [indicator] is the smell that comes from the exhaust. What remains is that we want to travel a bit longer to have more kilometers covered so that when we tell the people that ethanol does not damage the engine we are so sure about it.”

Kalirani says fuel consumption depends on the speed and age of the car and that newer vehicles that use ethanol consume about half as much fuel as ones that use petrol.

Statistics show that between 1995 and 2000, Malawi imported up to 90 million liters of petrol each year. At the same time, the cost rose from about $10 million to about $40 million over the same period. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says in the first half of this year, a barrel of bio-ethanol in Brazil was half the price of a barrel of oil.

Matthews Chikaonda is the chief executive officer of Press Corporation, Limited, a local conglomerate that owns the only two companies that produce ethanol: Presscane and Ethanol Company (ETHCO).

Chikaonda says Malawi produces one of the components of ethanol – molasses, which is made from sugar cane.

ETHCO creates seven million liters of ethanol a year at its plant in Dwangwa, a town in central Malawi, while Presscane delivers 10.8 million liters from its plant in southern Malawi.

Each factory is capable of producing up to 16 million liters a year but is operating below capacity because of the scarcity of molasses. Chikaonda says it’s possible that the factories could produce at full capacity because there is room to expand existing sugarcane plantations.

The government is also working with ETHCO to import Brazilian “flex-fuel” vehicles that can also use the biofuel. The cars are also said to cost a bit less than cars using petrol.

But analysts are advising the government to first ensure the availability of ethanol in the country’s filling stations before it starts importing the vehicles.

The decision to use ethanol is in line with the UN Framework on Climate Change, which encourages governments to take steps to reduce vehicle emissions. The government says a switch to ethanol will create employment opportunities in the sugarcane industry and help save foreign exchange currently being spent on fuel imports.