The future fuel?
Hydrogen will contribute to sustainable energy once it overcomes certain challenges
The time for the hydrogen economy is opportune for India. But are we prepared for it and what needs to be done? Hydrogen economy has a great potential for boosting India's energy security and alleviating the greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions. Simply stated, hydrogen can be used as a fuel in a variety of applications, including fuel cell power generation and fuel cell vehicles. It combusts cleanly, producing only water and no other obnoxious gases, and can be used as fuel in conventional Internal Combustion (IC) engines to produce mechanical or electrical power. Also, its energy efficiency is higher than IC engines that run on conventional fuels like petrol or diesel. The hydrogen IC engine is said to have about 38 per cent efficiency which is eight per cent higher than petrol IC engine, while the fuel cell is 2-3 times more efficient than an IC engine.
Crude oil-based economy doesn't have a sustainable future. By the mid-2050s, there may not be a viable source of crude oil available, and hence, alternate sources must be tapped. Even otherwise, the overuse of oil products over the last century has done great harm to the environment, ultimately culminating into the Paris Agreement of 2015. Can hydrogen emerge as the saviour of the environment and how?
The European Union, the Hydrogen Council and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) have reported that hydrogen could grow from two per cent of the global energy mix in 2018 to 13-24 per cent by 2050, at about 8 per cent CAGR at the mid-point. The Hydrogen Council predicts investment of USD 150 billion by 2030. For the hydrogen economy to be a reality, hydrogen must be produced cheaply and in an eco-friendly manner, and should serve as the commercial fuel that would provide a substantial portion of the country's energy demand. The reason might not be so obvious to the public but in the so-called net-(carbon)-zero economy, green hydrogen will have to play a dominant role, not only in achieving the objective of converting carbon dioxide into fuels and chemicals such as methanol, dimethyl ether, formic acid, ammonia, etc. but also transforming (waste) biomass including waste plastics into fuels and chemicals.
Hydrogen should be manufactured using local resources and indigenous technologies. Its manufacture via varied processes is coupled with a broad range of emissions, depending on the type of technology and energy source used, thereby having different costs, consequences and material needs. Hydrogen production technologies are broadly categorised as — grey hydrogen, blue hydrogen, and green hydrogen. The main difference among the grey, blue, and green hydrogen is that the hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels, non-renewable energy, and renewable energy, respectively. Electrolysis of water using clean electricity from wind, solar, hydro, or nuclear energy sources will give green hydrogen which is the gold standard as it produces zero GHG emissions. Steam reforming of biomass, biogas, bio-oil, or natural gas also gives hydrogen called blue hydrogen giving the other carbon portion in the feedstock like carbon dioxide.
Green hydrogen is less polluting and does not emit carbon dioxide — providing a key to decarbonise industrial processes and economic sectors. It meets the important challenge of reducing carbon emissions. This is part of the so-called net-zero carbon policy by 2050 in consonance with the Paris Agreement while working towards zero pollution. However, hydrogen represents a modest fraction of the global energy mix and is largely produced as grey hydrogen from fossil fuels releasing tons of carbon dioxide annually in the EU.
The Hydrogen Council, founded in 2017 has now 109 companies as members from more than 20 countries, bringing together an even broader range of sectors along with the complete hydrogen value chain. However, the transition to a hydrogen economy faces many challenges including large-scale infrastructures for refilling stations of hydrogen akin to those of petrol, diesel and natural gas; and the cost of hydrogen production, transport, and storage. These challenges can be overcome collectively through partnership among stakeholders, continued research across institutions, and above all, local government policies.
There are many points to advocate the hydrogen economy for India's transition to clean and green energy. Renewable electricity will lead the decarbonisation efforts across the globe by 2050. Meanwhile, hydrogen can serve as a vector for renewable energy storage in conjunction with batteries and transport, guaranteeing as a backup for seasonable variations. Hydrogen can substitute fossil fuels in some carbon-intensive industrial processes, such as steel and chemical and allied industry, lowering GHGs and further bolstering global competitiveness for those industries. It can be used to supplement other renewables in difficult to abate transportation systems. India can learn from the policies of the US, EU, Japan, and China to promote the hydrogen economy. It was heartening to note that Indian Oil has planned to purchase 15 polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell buses that can run on hydrogen fuel and is also setting up a facility to produce hydrogen to run the buses. The Ministry of Natural Gas and Petroleum must also be applauded for creating the hydrogen corpus fund. The renewable energy sources are environment-friendly alternatives to produce electricity to be applied for hydrogen production. The potential of solar energy for producing sustainable electric power (solar PV or solar heat), or by direct use of solar heat to produce hydrogen for fuel cell, power generation and as fuel for ICEs merits attention. However, the high capital cost of fuel cell, about USD 5,500/kW, is one of the major hurdles in its development that must be surmounted before its commercialisation.
As fuel cell technology becomes mature and economical, fuel cells and fuel cell vehicles will gain substantial market share vis-à-vis conventional power generation sources and vehicles. The entire world would benefit from lower dependence on oil and coal and a cleaner environment through lower carbon emissions. What we need in the future are the integrated plants for hydrogen production from water splitting and its use in controlling environmental pollution and climate change as well as in the production of many chemicals (the carbon dioxide refineries). Also, we need a novel, realistic rethinking of the energy policy — from transitioning from coal to petroleum to gas and eventually to electrification of transport, carbon pricing and a focus on new technologies. Why and how the energy and material policies should consider renewable sources of energy should be clear now. However, before this vision is turned into a reality and the transition to the hydrogen economy takes place, many technical, social, and policy challenges must be adopted. The Government of India should make the first move, sooner than later, in consonance with its grand objective of the five trillion-dollar economy.
The writer is former Vice-Chancellor & RT Mody Distinguished Professor & Tata Chemicals Darbari Seth Distinguished Professor of Leadership & Innovation, Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai. Views expressed are personal.