By Ashay Abbhi
The search for alternative fuels has led to the largest energy revolution across the world. New technologies for power generation have emerged as all countries move away from fossil-fuel- based sources. Renewable energy has witnessed rapid growth in India over the past few years. New and competitive technologies are being adopted for electricity production. Recently, hydrogen energy has gained traction globally as a source of power generation. India is just beginning to make strides in this space, focusing on research and development (R&D) to make the technology competitive and affordable for the masses.
Hydrogen technology has a huge potential to provide clean, reliable and sustainable energy. In India, hydrogen was introduced as a source of energy in the early 2000s with the creation of the National Hydrogen Energy Board, which held its first meeting in 2004. In 2006, it released the National Hydrogen Energy Road Map, as a pathway for transition to hydrogen energy. It included action plans and programmes on the various components of hydrogen energy systems including production, storage, power, transport and systems integration. Since the release of the roadmap, there has been little progress on the adoption of the technology. However, hydrogen is now becoming a buzzword in the power corridors of India, bringing the focus back on its adoption as a power generation source.
Hydrogen can be used for power generation in the form of decentralised fuel cells. These are modular cells that require relatively pure hydrogen without contaminants such as sulphur or carbon compounds. Alternatively, the internal combustion engine or turbine can be run on hydrogen fuel to enable power generation.
The 2006 roadmap calls the application of hydrogen in the power sector as the Green Initiative for Power Generation (GIP). The GIP was aimed at developing and demonstrating hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine/turbine and fuel cell-based decentralised power generating systems, ranging in capacity from milliwatt to mega-watt (MW). The ultimate goal is to introduce such power generating systems in large numbers by 2020. These hydrogen-powered generators will have the same technical parameters as conventional fossil-fuel-based generators. By 2020, the GIP aims to set up a cumulative hydrogen-based generation capacity of 1,000 MW.
At present, hydrogen energy applications in power and transport are at the R&D stage. While the transport segment has seen some pilot projects, hydrogen-based power generation is yet to take off. In March 2018, Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL), in association with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, launched India’s first hydrogen fuel cell-powered bus in New Delhi. A hydrogen fuel dispensing station has also been set up at IOCL’s R&D centre. The trials of the bus will provide insights into the durability and efficiency of the fuel cell technology and its use for mobility applications.
One of the largest and most cost-intensive parts of the process is the production of pure hydrogen. The conventional technologies available for hydrogen extraction include steam methane reforming, partial oxidation, auto-thermal reforming, methanol reforming, ammonia cracking, thermocatalytic methane cracking and novel reformer technologies. However, the cost of these industrial methods is prohibitive for the commercial and widespread use of hydrogen. In November 2018, researchers at IIT Jodhpur, led by Professor Rakesh Kumar Sharma, used the “reverse photosynthesis” process to produce hydrogen from water molecules. The technology leverages sunlight to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen using lanthanide as a catalyst. The researchers trapped the oxygen thus produced, leaving behind pure hydrogen. This technology has the potential to produce low-cost hydrogen, which can be adopted in cost-sensitive segments such as power generation. However, since the technology is currently at prototype stage, actual commercials are not available.
In 2014, the Indian Railways Organisation for Alternate Fuels (IROAF) launched a mission to introduce fuel cells as a source of electric power for rolling stock as well as for stand-alone applications. As part of the mission, IROAF deployed the first prototype small-scale 2 kW fuel cell system in one of its locomotives in the Tughlaqabad diesel shed. The system provides auxiliary power while the main engine of the locomotive has been shut down. In May 2017, there were reports of IROAF experimenting with hydrogen-powered fuel cells. The pilot project involved using fuel cells to power the guard vans attached to trains as a standby. According to the agency, fuel cells can generate up to 300 kW of power.
There has been little progress in the application of hydrogen as an alternative fuel. Demonstration and pilot projects are being undertaken by some of the premier institutions of the country. However, commencing commercial operations is still a long haul.
The development of hydrogen technology has been in the works for nearly two decades now. However, it has failed to achieve commercial status. Since the technology is still at the R&D stage, there is no clarity on the changes that need to be made to turbines and engines to use hydrogen as a fuel. Pilot projects are under way to understand how the available turbine technology can be modified for this purpose. While there have been some hydrogen-based projects in the transport sector, research in the power sector continues to lag behind. Another challenge is the storage of pure hydrogen in ready-to-use form. Hydrogen can be stored in the compressed hydrogen, hydrogen gas and solid states. It can also be stored using chemicals and bulk storage methods such as pipelines and underground storage. There have been some improvements in stationary storage methods for use in power plants. However, the cost of these systems is very high as compared to other fossil fuels as well as renewable energy fuels like wind and solar energy, which do not need to be stored. Moreover, since hydrogen gas is odourless and colourless in nature, suitable methods will need to be used for detecting leakages in pipelines and containers. A major concern in liquid hydrogen storage is minimising hydrogen losses from liquid boil-off, especially in the Indian context where ambient temperatures are high.
Capital and operating costs pose a significant challenge to the large-scale adoption of hydrogen fuel for power generation. The extraction and storage of pure hydrogen are quite expensive. For an application as cost sensitive as power, the price of generation from an emerging technology should be comparable to that from existing fuels. As long as the technology is unable to achieve grid parity, its mass adoption may continue to be a distant reality. Meanwhile, the lack of standards and guidelines pertaining to hydrogen production, usage and storage has also impeded its adoption in India.
The way forward
Hydrogen has rightly been dubbed as the “fuel of the future” by the industry as it promises to be a highly efficient source of energy. Especially, using hydrogen as a fuel for power generation could be the answer to India’s aim of transitioning from coal-based and nuclear power. In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of hydrogen-based fuel cells in the transport segment, and pilot projects by Indian Railways seem to hold great promise.
Having said that, it is important to note that there is still a long way to go before hydrogen can be utilised for mass power generation in India, given that the technology is still at the prototype stage. Power generation can potentially be one of the largest applications for hydrogen in India once issues such as cost, storage, evolution of turbine technology and standards are sorted out.