What Came First
The inter-relation between Fuel and Fire is almost like the parable of the Chicken and the Egg. If there was no Fuel, how can fire burn, but if there was no fire then how can the fuel alight. Here too the debate can be endless except for the uncontested fact that it is solely by mastering the use of fire that man began his walk towards civilization. Manufacturing activity albeit on a tiny localized scale started soon thereafter as the prehistoric precursor of Industrialization. First man started to bake his earthenware like pottery and later bricks to increase their lifespan. Simultaneously, he taught himself to weave and subsequently dye fabrics. Later he learned to smelt various metals from ores leading to the various metal-ages, culminating with the Iron-age; the gateway to modern civilisation.
Progress vs Ecology
The evolution of human civilization and its growing economies was wholly and continuously dependent on fire and thereby fuel. In the early epochs it was firewood, till man discovered and started mining coal. And along with this progress started a chain of interrelated causes and effects that have changed little over the last 2000 years. Mankind’s progress is dependent on cheap sources of energy or fuel, but burning of all fuels causes either direct or indirect ecological damage, not to say depletion of energy resources.
The Chinese learned to make cast iron and steel almost 2000 years back and their early ironworks used copious amounts of charcoal causing the first systematic large scale deforestation in recorded history. The situation was repeated in 17th century England with the advent of the modern industrialization when the country’s forest cover was rampantly depleted, again for making charcoal for steel foundries. This came to an end with the invention of the coking process, where bituminous coal was devolatilized and sulfur levels reduced to make it suitable for use in Metallurgy. However, the damage done; England never recovered her forest cover.
The post industrialization usage of coal worldwide took a massive toll on the environmental with millions of tons of CO2 and particulate matter consisting of soot and ash spewing into the atmosphere year after year causing adverse climatic effects like smog and acid rains, affecting the health of millions causing respiratory diseases like asthma, tuberculosis and lung cancer. Mining of coal meanwhile destroyed countryside’s and poisoned countless rivers, streams and ground water reservoirs.
The advent of the Petroleum age in the 19th century and its widespread proliferation in the 20th century did little to ease the adverse effects of coal and firewood. The former remained the fuel of choice of the thermal power generation industry, while the exploding population of impoverished nations and the cold northern countries continued depleting forests for firewood for cooking and heating.
The Indian Scenario
India’s industrialization only started in the late colonial period and actually took off only after independence. Just like in other countries, it was again coal which was the preferred source or rather the only available source of energy for feeding the industry. However, with the increase of her petroleum refining capabilities very soon there was available a new cheap fuel: HFO (Heavy Fuel Oil) or Furnace Oil (F.O.) as it is commonly known. A dark, thick and very viscous oil resembling bitumen, comprising of the residual waste from the refining process, which needs pre-heating to make it free flowing for pumping, filtration and burning. However, it was cheap, easily available and almost at par with diesel in terms of energy yield and very soon it became the fuel of choice for burning in industrial furnaces and boilers for decades.
The reign of F.O. as the Industry’s favorite fuel temporarily came to an end in the 2006-12 period. Being one of the first petroleum products to be de-controlled, the Indian oil companies started jacking up its price during this period in tandem with the global prices of crude oil and bunker fuel. And very soon the price of F.O. became at par with Diesel and for a brief moment even exceeded it, thereby causing a mass exodus of users towards other fuels.
One of the largest consumers of Furnace Oil, the Iron and Steel sector shifted en masse to coal, using it either in a Pulverized form (PCC) or by installing coal gasifiers to make producer gas. The Sugar mills too installed gasifiers to make Bio-mass gas from their waste bagasse. Industries having the locational advantage and access to the Natural gas distribution network, started using natural gas, others shifted to biomass fuels like briquettes or rice husk.
The net result of this unjustified and opportunistic spiking of Furnace Oil prices, was that India now has to exports half of its F.O. production at low prices, as domestic consumption is only half of the production. In 2013-14, India produced 12,953 thousand MT of FO and consumed only 6,236 thousand MT. ( source – Petroleum Analysis Cell, Ministry of Petroleum).
Return of the King
Fast-forward to late 2015. The global oil prices, which were on a downward spiral since the middle of the year, bottom out towards the end. The Indian Petroleum industry in an uncharacteristic prudent move gradually halves the price of Furnace Oil to about Rs20 a Litre, back to early 2000s levels. The popular excuse given is that of global oil prices, though the more pragmatic truth points towards massive domestic stockpiles and low international bunker fuel rates.
So once again F.O. is slowly becomes the preferred industrial fuel with most of its previous users returning back to using it for its low prices, but with the down side of again subjecting themselves to all its shortcomings and associated problems. Though its resurgence is an undeniable boon for all, but what shouldn’t be forgotten it that is still a pretty dirty fossil fuel both in terms of storage and handling as well as combustion and emissions, especially when one is forced to consider the abysmally poor urban air quality and pollution levels in the country.
The Magic of Water in Fuel
It is in situations such as prevalent in the country today when FO-Emulsification can prove itself to be the need of the hour as it can provide invaluable help to both the fuel users as well as the environment.
FO-water emulsification is a globally proven technology for processing and enhancing residual oil fuels like F.O., whereby the resultant fuel provides better combustion, improved economy and cleaner emissions. The process of emulsification entails blending two immiscible liquids like oil and water, whereby one is reduced into microscopic droplets and blended within the other in such a way that they never separate.
Once emulsified, even poor burning fuels like heavy residual oils and refinery residue can combust easily and cleanly with significant reduction of smoke and pollutants like NOx (Nitrogen Oxides), PM (Particulate Mater) and CO (Carbon Monoxide) in stack emissions. In applications like Boilers and Furnaces, water-in-oil Emulsions not only effect complete combustion but also allow for extremely low excess-air levels, which directly corresponds to reduction of waste heat and better energy utilizations.
Apart form the various manufacturing industries, usage of Emulsified HFO can also help bring back online a many of the Combined Cycle Gas Turbine based Power plants, which today are today either shut-down or working intermittently due to lack of natural gas. With a little or no modification, GE’s B & E class and many Siemen’s turbines series can easily run on HFO. Converting these turbines to fire Emulsified HFO would take care of most of the problems associated with usage of heavy oils in Gas Turbines like soot formation and at the same time eliminate the need of importing expensive fuels like LNG as F.O. is already available in surplus in the country.