India! Get Serious About Hydrogen

As per WHO, India is home to six of the ten most polluted cities in the world when considering PM 2.5 pollution. The Government of India is paying a lot of emphasis on development of cleaner sources of energy. Some of the focus areas are development of solar and wind energy, changing over to Natural Gas as the mainstay for hydrocarbon based energy and development of nuclear energy. 

All these sources of energy generate electricity in static power plants which can then be distributed for domestic, commercial, industrial as well as transportation use. However, there is a small glitch. The transportation needs that can be met with these sources of energy are public transports like long distance railway, mass rapid transit systems, trams and trolley buses (not significant in India).

Some people may claim that personal transport based on electricity is available, but to be frank they are not a viable option to hydrocarbon fuelled personal transports. The reason is very simple, the manner in which energy is stored in the vehicle and time required to store and use that energy. In case of a hydrocarbon fuelled vehicle, fuelled by petrol, diesel or CNG, the time taken to store the source of energy (fill up the tank) is say 3 to 10 minutes, while this gives a range of anywhere between 500 to 900 km. In fact, the poorest ratio for filling time to range is for CNG, which is evident from the long queues in front of CNG stations, a major deterrent for non-commercial vehicle users. 

This ratio is pathetic for electric cars, four to five hours of energy storage time for a range of 100 to 150 km. One of the major deterrents to electric cars is range anxiety; will I be able to return home?

Second factor is availability of sources for storing energy. Petrol pumps are found a dime a dozen, but electric charging stations? Try finding one in India. What I can make out is that the present emphasis of the government on clean energy will not be able to solve the personal transportation dilemma and will not be able to wean people away from hydrocarbon fuelled transport.

There is one technology that can resolve these various conflicting issues. That is Fuel Cell. A lot of development has been made in the field and a number of automobile manufacturers are in a position to offer viable fuel cell powered vehicles in the very near future. Why do I call this technology as the most viable solution? Well, because, refuelling of liquid hydrogen into a fuel cell powered vehicle has a similar filling time to range ratio as petrol or diesel fuelled cars. The vehicle runs on electricity and does not produce any of the fumes that a hydrocarbon powered vehicle does. During the transition period from hydrocarbons to Hydrogen, fuelling stations can be set up either along with petrol pumps or in lieu of petrol pumps. The fuelling process and experience does not change for the driver who drives into the hydrogen fuelling station. This would allow for a smooth transition for drivers without causing all the inconveniences like those caused by the weird Even-Odd number plate experiment in Delhi.

 This technology can be expanded to include power generators, military vehicles, conventional submarines, transport vehicles, railways etc.

The question that now rises is that the technology is very expensive. Well, so was Solar Power, but the huge demand in India has allowed the per KW-Hr prices to become comparable to thermal power plants now. India is a huge market for scaling up any technology if there is focussed attention. I am sure, if the government of India promotes Hydrogen economy and thus makes such a huge potential market available to manufacturers of Fuel Cell powered vehicles, producers and distributors of Hydrogen and hydrogen economy infrastructure developers, the prices will automatically come down.

India has nothing to lose by promoting hydrogen economy. Anyway the country imports 80% of its hydrocarbon requirements. On the contrary, we are a peninsula, surrounded by sea on three sides, giving ample source of water for producing Hydrogen. For all we know, India may have the potential to become a major exporter of fuel for a Hydrogen economy.

I feel, focussing on and developing Hydrogen based economy in India should be a major focus for the government in the long run. 

Cdr Rajesh Sinha (Retd) is a ‘Mechanical Engineer’, has a Post Graduation in ‘Nuclear Technology’ and an MBA in ‘Technology Management’. He is Founder of Adler Technoserve Pvt Ltd a company working in the field of engineering consultancy, technical services and corporate training.