Hydrogen can be produced commercially using a number of different feed-stocks as well as methods. The most commonly used feed-stock for commercial production of Hydrogen are:-
- Natural Gas, which is used to produce 48% of total hydrogen produced commercially.
- Oil, which is used to produce 30% of total hydrogen produced commercially.
- Coal, which is used to produce 18% of total hydrogen produced commercially.
- Water, which is used to produce 4% of total hydrogen produced commercially.
The various processes used are:-
- Steam reforming of hydrocarbons.
- CO2 sequestration of hydrocarbons.
- Partial oxidation of hydrocarbons.
- Plasma reforming of hydrocarbons.
- Coal gasification.
- Petroleum coke gasification.
- Electrolysis of water.
Production of hydrogen using any of the aforementioned techniques except electrolysis generates a large amount of green house gases/ products that need to be disposed off to minimise the environmental effect. Thus, these process do not meet the requirement of hydrogen economy being a purely carbon free economy. Hence I am considering only the electrolysis option. There are a number of more methods being developed but they are not commercially proven hence I am not considering them presently.
The main issue with electrolysis is that it needs to be carried out at very high temperature, approximately 800°C. This needs a lot of energy, and this energy would, under present circumstances come from hydrocarbon based power plants. New techniques like the Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) Cells and Alkaline Electrolysis Cells (AECs) are being developed which can generated hydrogen at lower temperatures of 100°C to 200°C respectively. They can also operate at fluctuating voltages, thus can be operated by Solar Power Plants providing electricity.
India has the world’s largest reserves of Thorium and the Indian nuclear programme is in the process of developing a Thorium based reactor. A combination of electrolysis based hydrogen generation plants and thorium based power reactors providing power to these hydrogen plants can form the bedrock of the Indian hydrogen economy.
The idea is to use the unlimited supply of water available in coastal peninsular India for producing hydrogen and use the electricity generated by the Thorium based reactors to operate these plants.
Why am I proposing nuclear energy as source of electricity and not solar power or wind mills? Indian has a unique geography; areas abundant in sunlight are in the west while sea water resources are in south, Gujarat being an exception. Most of the coastal areas have a long monsoon, thus are not suitable for establishing solar farms. Also, solar farms are space inefficient; there may not be enough space to establish solar farms in coastal areas which are very densely populated. On the other hand, nuclear energy, if handled properly, is clean and non-polluting. The waste generated is small in quantity and manageable. Thorium based power plants can be co-located with the electrolysis based hydrogen plants, thus reducing the infrastructure required to provide power to these hydrogen plants. Thorium reactors are breeder reactors which would generate their own fuel as they generate electricity. This would also make India less dependent on imported hydrocarbons for producing hydrogen because if the other technologies are required then dependence on imported hydrocarbons would continue.
This roadmap is feasible as the technology for electrolysis is already available and Thorium based reactors is under development and should be available in within a decade.