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Driving the biodiesel Mercedes

August 27, 2005 15:02 IST

Diamler Chrysler India CEO Hans Michael Huber the Mercedes test car of the 'Biodiesel Project with Mercedes-Benz'. Photograph: Sebastian D'Souza/AFP/Getty ImagesThe mountain has been notoriously naughty with me. The first time I tried to mess with her, she poured snow over Rohtang and kept me at an arm's length. The second time around she let me have a dance with her, but I did drive her crazy as I went up Baralachla to stay at Pang.

The third time she didn't launch into a storm till I ventured all the way up to Tanglangla, but once I touched down, she almost killed me. This time I was really going the whole hog and flew into Leh. Was the mountain upset? Don't think so, since I managed to drive a car to Khardungla -- at 18,380 ft, the highest motorable road in the world.

Now you don't actually need a car to go to Khardungla. I saw Bajaj Chetaks going up peacefully and also some extremely weird species of Homo Sapiens sporting things called 'muscles' on cycles.

So driving up to Khardungla and posing next to a yellow stone that proclaims that it is the highest motorable road is an eminently fun and, as I realised with remorse, an extremely touristy thing to do. But guess what, there was a slimy twist to the tale.

The Mercedes-Benz Viano that I drove up to the oxygen sucking altitude ran on biodiesel developed from the Jatropha plant. And that meant I was the first person in this universe to drive a biodiesel-powered Viano to Khardungla. Can someone call the guys from the Guinness Book?

Jokes aside, it is difficult not to feel like an overachiever once you reach the top of Khardungla. But if you behave the same way you did after watching Rambo in your teens, you are bound to be in trouble thanks to the altitude.

There was an army jawan controlling traffic on top (no, I am not making this up) as hordes of Toyota Qualises,phirangs on decked-up Bullets and even a complete bus jostled for space in the, ahem, world's highest parking lot.

Soon, a second car, this time a C-Class powered by biodiesel rolled in. We -- as in the extremely pampered motoring journalists, the DaimlerChrysler India drivers who actually drove the cars from Pune to Leh for us to do a mere hill climb and DC officials -- had a bit of song-and-dance and took lots of pictures. And before it all got heady and we all became violently sick, the Mercedes duo trundled down.

Now writing about my biodiesel adventure won't be complete if I don't tell you what all the fuss is all about, right? It is pretty simple actually.

Point one. Fossil fuels are expensive and despite the tedious acquisition of Iraq by US troops, it is getting rarer to find. Point two. Hybrid technology is complex and makes cars expensive. Point three. Fuel cell cars will be ready only when your great grandson goes to college.

Even then, he won't be able to afford it. Point four. Oil extracted from Jatropha seeds has similar properties as diesel and it doesn't pollute as much. Point five. Jatropha, a perennial bush, can be grown in arid lands, which means it can result in a green-oil-revolution of sorts.

Brilliant, isn't it? Though the concept is not new and various gooey liquids -- ranging from used McOil to alcohol -- have been used to run internal combustion engines for some time now, it is important to find a solution that suits a particular country.

Enter a genius by the name of Dr Pushpito Ghosh, director of Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute, affiliated to the Council of Science and Industrial Research (CSIR). After spending three days with him, I can tell you that he gets terribly excited merely talking about the concept of biofuel.

So much so that he patiently explained the concept repeatedly even to the hotel receptionist. Seriously, Dr Ghosh is passionate about what he is doing, and if he has his way with the Government of India, we are not far away from reaping diesel from barren land.

Now Dr Ghosh managed to convince DaimlerChrysler that they should support the Jatropha biodiesel programme, and at DCI and the University of Hohenheim, he found the perfect partners.

The project already has small plantations in Gujarat and Orissa, and they are busy evaluating the best practices of biodiesel production and utilisation of by-products in a commercially viable manner.

The current MD and CEO of DCI is Hans-Michael Huber - an avid Silver Arrows fan who follows F1 with the same passion as C-Class sales in India. He thought it would be a good idea to push the envelop further and test biodiesel power in the demanding terrain offered by the Himalayas. I could not agree more with him when he said that there is no more challenging a test-track than the road that leads to Leh and beyond from Manali.

Very unlike the CEOs of companies who flag-off test cars and go back to playing golf, Huber, along with an equally spirited Suhas Kadlaskar (DCI's director-corporate affairs and finance), were present at Leh, encouraging their team and the journalists to go where no biodiesel car has gone before.

Later in the day, I was driving the black C 220 CDI back from the Hemis monastery (of the Hemis festival fame -- I am ignorant beyond that). The road was serpentine and the mountains around it made me realise how it would be to drive a life-size Pathfinder in Mars.

Leh is situated at 11,500 ft, and that means the clouds feel as if they are closer to you. And these cloud systems do create drizzles that have not managed to do much to the sand and the timber architecture of the monasteries. As I took a neat right turn, the C-Class was greeted by a huge rainbow.

One more corner and there it was, yet another rainbow. Now it was fast becoming a page out of a fairy tale and I was almost certain that at the end of the second rainbow, I would find a pot of gold. That is not the point. I was enjoying the perfectly formed Mercedes on a beautifully winding road and the last thing on my mind was biofuel!

That, I believe, is the true test of any fuel -- when I drove the GM EV1, it buzzed like an electric razor, the hybrid Toyota Prius looked puzzled and tried to teach me everything about regenerative braking while I was trying to drive, and Honda employees prevented me from taking a third lap in the FCX because barrel-rolling one would have sunk the company.

Here I was, driving a proper car with a proper internal-combustion engine in an unreal land and gunning for the next apex. Don't you think the ultimate success of biodiesel would be when you can call it just diesel?

There was a certain degree of power loss and I am not an expert enough to tell you what per cent of it was thanks to the atmosphere and what per cent was contributed by the properties of the fuel.

What I can tell you is that DaimlerChrysler India have taken the bold step to use 'neat' biodiesel -- without mixing it with any fossil fuel -- for these tests. However, the only additive that went in helped the fuel from getting hazy at extreme cold temperature.

If the powers that be align together, India may soon be farming diesel instead of digging for it. Thanks to the support of DaimlerChrysler India and the ceaseless energy of Dr Ghosh and his team at CSIR, the biodiesel project has aroused the interest of many.

Three days in the rarefied atmosphere in and around Leh, three Mercedes-Benzes proved that a perennial bush might just extend the life of internal combustion engines that much more. It is still early days, and in case DCI wants more high altitude testing, I am game -- for another roaring affair with the mountain.

(Above) Diamler Chrysler India CEO Hans Michael Huber the Mercedes test car of the 'Biodiesel Project with Mercedes-Benz'. Photograph: Sebastian D'Souza/AFP/Getty Images

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Bijoy Kumar Y in Mumbai