This element powered our first internal combustion engines, took us to the moon and back, and was discovered before fossil fuels.

Yet, it has taken nearly 200 years for this clean energy source to even be considered for the roads. Now, as the world stares at an energy crisis and grapples with climate change, hydrogen is also on the table as a green alternative to fossil fuels.

“Hydrogen has never enjoyed so much international and cross-sectoral interest, even in the face of impressive recent progress in other low-carbon energy technologies, such as batteries and renewables,” says a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). It is just as well. Thanks to commitments made by governments around the world to reduce their net emissions by 2050, sectors whose requirements can be met by electricity are in the glare. These include aviation, shipping, and long-distance road transport. “How do you electrify heavy-duty vehicles like buses and trucks and also ships and aircraft through lithium-ion batteries?” asks S.S.V. Ramakumar, director, R&D, Indian Oil Corporation (IOC). The answer, he believes as does the IEA, lies with hydrogen-based fuel cells.

Ramakumar explains that since hydrogen eliminates all disadvantages of lithium-ion batteries, it could be the “ultimate green mobility option for India”. What he is referring to isn’t just “range anxiety”—the apprehension about the distance travelled by an electric vehicle in one charge—but also the high cost of batteries, the challenges of setting up pan-India charging infrastructure, and a disposal mechanism for these cells. Plus, it’s not clear whether lithium-ion batteries will be as efficient in a tropical country like India, as elsewhere.

Let’s get back to hydrogen. There’s a reason why it wasn’t considered an alternative to fossil fuels. In fact in 2009, then U.S. secretary of energy Steven Chu cut funding for hydrogen-based fuel cells citing four reasons: One, hydrogen is highly inflammable and difficult to store; two, it was costly to produce; three, infrastructure to distribute hydrogen had to be built; and four, the fuel cell wasn’t as durable, low-cost, and powerful as the internal combustion engine.

A lot has changed since. Hydrogen now competes with lithium-ion batteries as a fuel for the future. Consider this: Once charged, a car with a 5-kg hydrogen cylinder can cover 550-600 km, compared to 80-100 km on a lithium-ion battery. Refuelling takes three-five minutes, akin to that for a compressed natural gas (CNG)-fuelled car, while a battery may take hours to charge. Hydrogen’s energy content, too, is higher than that of fossil fuels. Also, the materials used in hydrogen cells can be recycled, unlike batteries. These factors make it a correct fit for medium or heavy vehicles. No wonder Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury says he’s seen a “growing willingness to explore the potential of hydrogen as a possible aviation fuel”.

Globally, the adoption of hydrogen as a fuel has been rising. According to the IEA, 11,000 hydrogen-powered cars are on the road, with 20,000 fork-lift trucks at warehouses. Countries taking the lead in such vehicles include the U.S., Japan, Denmark, Germany, China, France, and South Korea. Carmakers such as Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda sell hydrogen-powered cars which are two-three times more fuel efficient than their petrol counterparts. “Hydrogen is the technology of the future—available today,” says Charles Freese, who heads General Motors’ fuel cells business.

While India is still debating the right technology for the future, it makes sense to look at the bigger picture “like providing a clean environment rather than focussing on the right technology”, says IOC chairman Sanjiv Singh. Some options are being explored. Pilots of hydrogen-powered vehicles are on and India is on course to have buses that run on hydrogen-spiked fuel soon.

While it’s still early days for hydrogen in India, industry leaders such as Toyota Tsusho Corp. chairman Jun Karube and shipbuilder Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ president and CEO Seiji Izumisawa believe using hydrogen as fuel would help create a cleaner, energy-efficient future.

What are hydrogen-based fuel cells? “The fuel cell,” explains Ramakumar, “is an electrochemical device that converts the chemical energy coming from the hydrogen tank into electrical energy to drive the motor and hence the car.”

Fuel cells have distinct advantages over lithium-ion batteries. A small 5-kg hydrogen tank attached to the fuel cell occupies a much smaller area than a series of batteries that power a vehicle. It is also much lighter because aluminium, used in fuel cells, is one-fourth the weight of lithium, ensuring higher mileage. With 55% efficiency, fuel cells are better than conventional vehicle engines which run at 25% efficiency. This means that not only does a fuel cell fit in an automobile, it is also more efficient than a conventional engine.

A recent KPMG report says that during the second phase of electrification of transport, fuel-cell-based electric vehicles “can come in as a complementing technology” to lithium-ion battery-powered ones. For India, which pays massive sums for crude oil imports, it should play a bigger part. And compared to lithium-ion batteries, fuel cells seem the better option because India lacks the raw materials—lithium and cobalt—and the processes to manufacture lithium-ion batteries. That’s not all. “If lithium-ion batteries continue to be charged through electricity produced from coal and other fossil fuels, it will only mean shifting environmental pollution from cities to the place of generation or from the roads to the power plants,” says Singh.

On the other hand, hydrogen is found in abundance in nature. Also, methane, a refinery by-product, is a rich source of hydrogen. But in view of India’s green goals, IOC, the biggest producer and consumer of methane in the country, proposes to produce it from renewable sources. “We can easily do so by splitting steam [the gaseous form of water] into hydrogen and oxygen by using electricity generated from solar panels and from bio-methanisation of agricultural waste or by converting bio-waste to bio gas,” says Ramakumar. The bio-methanisation process that IOC has developed is a game changer, contends Singh. It is tailor-made for India as there is “no dearth of agricultural waste in the country or the right technology to produce bio gas”, he says.

Under the petroleum and natural gas ministry’s Sustainable Alternative Towards Affordable Transportation scheme, public sector oil refiners are helping private entrepreneurs set up bio-methanisation plants, with an assurance to pick up all the compressed bio-gas they produce at a fixed price for perpetuity. Nearly 230 such expressions of interest have been issued so far. But what makes the R&D team at IOC optimistic about its success is the fact that they have identified, developed, and patented certain microbes that will yield the maximum amount of methane from organic biomass. “Through our two-stage digestive process and using our own patented microbes, we are able to recover nearly 85% of methane from agricultural waste, while traditional players are recovering only 65%- 70% methane,” says Ramakumar. It is only a matter of time before the purification level reaches 95% methane making it as good a fuel as CNG.

Singh, the driving force in all such innovations at the sprawling R&D centre in Faridabad, says his company is ready to go into production. In fact, IOC has already put in its bid for the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s recent expression of interest calling organisations to run four indigenously developed hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses as a pilot project. These buses will first ply on Delhi’s roads and then in the National Capital Region for five years.

The 25-seater buses will not only help the government gather data on the fuel’s efficiency and emissions, but also its commercial viability and the possible techno-economic hurdles. It will also help the government set rules and procedures regarding regulation, standardisation, and the safety of the entire hydrogen value chain all the way from its production to transportation to integration with the electrical system or the computer in the bus.

Ramakumar says his company has the necessary expertise to run these buses safely. “We have already run Tata buses on our R&D campus using hydrogen fuel cell technology developed by Ballard Power, a technology company that was spun off from the U.S.-based General Electric,” he says.

To make hydrogen fuel cells a success, the company has entered into a tripartite arrangement with two other partners. One is the Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Science (IISc), a premier research institution, and the other a leading electric bus integrator, whose name IOC refuses to disclose. The IOC research team will customise the fuel cell to operate on the fuel that is produced in the country, and the integrator’s role will be to align the electronic control management system of the car with the fuel cell. The proof of concept of hydrogen production, developed jointly by IOC and IISc, has already been established and is currently at demonstration level.

Customising fuel cells is important because they require pure hydrogen to function, which comes with a cost. For instance, 1 kg of 99.9% pure hydrogen costs around ₹550-600, while that with a purity of 99.99% is around ₹800 and the one with 99.999% purity will cost ₹1,100. “If we can use 99.9% pure hydrogen for our fuel cells, not only will it bring down the cost of fuel cells but also help in its mass adoption,” says Ramakumar.

In fact, costs have been the biggest obstacle in the mass adoption of fuel cells. The idea is to bring down the delivered cost of hydrogen-based fuel cells below the cur - rent $14 a kg for fossil fuels to $3 per kg for renewable energy. That is the gap that needs to be bridged. Ramakumar argues that internal studies have shown that bringing down the price is eminently possible once bio-methanisation takes off. Being a chemicals company means IOC has the expertise to produce, handle, transport, and even dispense the highly inflammable hydrogen at its petrol stations.

While the technology matures further, trust Indian innovation to find a middle path—hydrogen-spiked CNG (H-CNG), which IOC has come up with. By blending 18% hydrogen in CNG, vehicles will not only reduce carbon dioxide and hydrocarbon emissions by 70%, but also increase efficiency by 5%. More importantly, vehicles with the older Bharat Stage IV (BS IV) engines will have emissions similar to those of a BS VI engine. According to the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, the fuel cost would rise by only 75p per km over conventional CNG.

There are two ways to bring H-CNG to petrol stations. One is to blend it at a distant location and then bring it to the stations; the other is to mix it at the station—which is cheaper. IOC’s R&D team has patented a chemical process by which it can produce hydrogen in a reactor, which can then be connected to the main CNG pipe at the service station. “This technology will not only enable us to bring down costs by nearly one-third, but also increase efficiency by 5%,” says Ramakumar.

Taking note of these developments, the Supreme Court has asked India’s biggest refiner to study the feasibility of H-CNG buses. As part of a pilot, IOC will run 50 public buses on H-CNG in Delhi for six months and provide data such as the performance of the engine in terms of fuel efficiency and the load it can take and then compare it with ordinary CNG-powered vehicles. Trials will begin from November.

The R&D team at IOC is not just confident of the success of H-CNG but also of hydrogen fuel cells, which they believe is the technology for the future.

French novelist Jules Verne had predicted something similar nearly 150 years ago. “I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light...” Verne had written in his novel The Mysterious Island. Need more proof how art lends to science?

(This story was originally published in the October 2019 issue of the magazine.)

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