“Hydrogen can provide energy security to India”

Interview with NISE’s Dr M.R. Nouni

Dr M.R. Nouni, Senior Consultant, Hydrogen Energy and Solar Thermal, National Institute of Solar Energy

Hydrogen is being talked about as the fuel of the future. Globally, its demand has been going up in recent years. In fact, Japan wants to showcase the use of hydrogen-driven vehicles during the Tokyo Olympics. In India, too, a roadmap was drawn up more than a decade and a half back under the Hydrogen Energy Programme. In an interview with Renewable Watch, Dr M.R. Nouni, senior consultant, hydrogen energy and solar thermal, National Institute of Solar Energy (NISE), talks about the most potential use cases of the fuel in India, the key challenges associated with it, progress in hydrogen-related research and development (R&D) and the way forward…

Where does India stand today in terms of hydrogen applications?

Hydrogen is to be seen in the context of decarbonising transport and other sectors of the economy like industry and residential, where it can be used as an energy carrier in place of liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons and coke. It does not produce any greenhouse gases at the point of use. Apart from producing electrical energy when used in fuel cells and mechanical energy in a hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engine (ICE), hydrogen only releases heat and water when combusted. In the case of hydrogen-fuelled ICE, some amount of nitrogen oxides are also produced and even these can be eliminated using certain techniques. Hydrogen can provide energy security to countries like India and Japan, which are heavily dependent on imported hydrocarbons, as it can be produced using locally available renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy. Hydrogen can also be produced using biomass, agro-residues and waste. In the Tokyo Olympic Games, which have now been postponed, Japan wanted to demonstrate the application of hydrogen not only for running fuel cell cars and buses, but also to meet the energy requirement of the games village and some other applications like lighting the game torches. This hydrogen will be produced from renewable sources and therefore would be green hydrogen.

In India, the National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap was prepared in 2005 by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) with the involvement of all the stakeholders. The committee that was involved in the preparation of the roadmap was headed by Ratan Tata. It had set some ambitious targets for hydrogen-fuelled vehicles and power generation along with the identification of some mission-mode projects and broad areas of R&D related to hydrogen production, storage and application in India. The MNRE supported a number of R&D and demonstration projects, which have resulted in the development of technologies for hydrogen production from waste and biomass, materials for hydrogen storage, prototypes of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, ranging from motorcycles to buses and also vehicles that can be run on hydrogen-blended compressed natural gas also called H-CNG and hydrogen-diesel dual-fuel vehicles. Based on knowledge gained from the development and demonstration of seven H-CNG vehicles of different types, the R&D centre of Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) is collaborating with the Delhi Transport Corporation for the demonstration of about 50 H-CNG buses in Delhi on the directives of the Supreme Court. IOCL has developed a process for the conversion of CNG into H-CNG of the desired blend. In addition, Tata Motors Limited has developed some fuel cell buses in the country. Two of these buses underwent limited field trials at IOCL’s hydrogen dispensing facility in Faridabad.

What has been the progress in hydrogen R&D activities carried out by NISE?

As part of the National Hydrogen Energy programme implemented by the MNRE, a solar hydrogen production-cum-storage and dispensing facility was commissioned at NISE at the end of 2014. The facility has an alkaline electrolyser of 5 Nm3 per hour capacity that uses electricity generated from a 120 kWp solar PV array for hydrogen production. The hydrogen produced is therefore green hydrogen. The facility set up at NISE has been utilised for field trials of five hydrogen-diesel dual fuel vehicles, developed by Mahindra & Mahindra under an R&D project supported by the MNRE. It may be noted that in many of the R&D projects that were supported by the MNRE, the industry was involved as one of the implementing agencies and it also contributed financially to the implementation of the project. Field trials of hydrogen-diesel vehicles have indicated that it is possible to reduce emissions from such vehicles and also improve their performance compared to similar diesel vehicles. NISE has also installed some fuel cells for demonstration purposes. NISE would continue to collaborate in field trials and demonstrations of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles developed by the Indian industry. We currently have only three hydrogen dispensing facilities in the country. These are located in NISE, Gurugram; the R&D Centre of IOCL in Faridabad; and one of IOCL’s fuelling stations at Dwarka in New Delhi.

As expected, the cost of hydrogen produced from the demonstration projects like the one installed at NISE is high. The cost of hydrogen production is likely to come down substantially owing to economies of scale, optimisation of hydrogen production-cum-dispensing facilities and the significant reduction in the cost of solar PV systems during the past one decade. The indigenisation of the electrolyser production technology will also reduce equipment cost, which is high due to equipment imports. Hydrogen production is energy intensive and therefore continued efforts are being made for improving electrolyser efficiencies, which will make hydrogen production economical in the years to come. Efforts are also under way globally, including in India, for developing photocatalysts that can produce hydrogen from water using solar energy in a single step instead of a two-stage process followed in the hydrogen production facility set up at NISE.

What has been the progress with regard to hydrogen storage and safety?

Hydrogen is the lightest element and therefore its density is very low. To overcome this challenge, in hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, hydrogen is stored at very high pressure in cylinders made of composite materials that are light and strong. These cylinders can store hydrogen up to 700 bar depending on their type. For two-wheelers and three-wheelers, metal hydride-based hydrogen storage systems have been developed in the country by Banaras Hindu University (BHU). IIT Madras and the Centre for Fuel Cell Technology, Chennai, have also developed carbon-based hydrogen storage materials. In spacecraft, where hydrogen is used as a fuel, it is stored in the liquefied form.

Hydrogen is as safe as any other fuel if it is handled carefully. There is a long experience of handling hydrogen in petroleum refineries and other chemical industries. Hydrogen-fuelled vehicles are equipped with a number of built-in safety features to avoid any accident in the event of a leakage. In hydrogen-fuelled buses, hydrogen cylinders are placed on the roof so that in the event of any leakage, hydrogen can escape into the environment. Further, hydrogen sensors are installed in case hydrogen has to be used in confined spaces like laboratories.

In many countries, fuel cell vehicles have been deployed in recent years. What is a fuel cell vehicle and what role can it play in electric mobility?

A fuel cell vehicle is an electric vehicle (EV) in which a fuel cell generates the electricity for driving the propulsion motor. Hydrogen and oxygen from air combine chemically in the fuel cell to generate direct current. Hydrogen is stored on-board in cylinders and fuel cells continue to generate electricity till the hydrogen lasts in the cylinder. A hydrogen vehicle can be refuelled in more or less same time as a petrol or diesel vehicle, unlike EVs. These vehicles do not have any range anxiety and, therefore, they may be preferred in cases where a vehicle that carries high payload is needed to be plied over a long distance. Many countries have already introduced fuel cell buses. For material handling, a number of corporations in the US have deployed fuel cell-operated forklifts in warehouses and have found them cost effective in comparison to battery-operated forklifts.

Is India collaborating with any foreign entity with regard to R&D in hydrogen?

As far as multilateral cooperation is concerned, India is a founding member of the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy (IPHE). A total of 19 countries are members of the IPHE besides the European Union (EU). The IPHE was formulated to facilitate and accelerate the transition to clean and efficient energy and mobility systems using hydrogen and fuel cell technologies across applications and sectors. For bilateral cooperation, India collaborates with a number of countries including Germany, Japan, EU countries and the US for R&D on hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

What role does NISE play in coordinating or supporting research efforts by different organisations, institutes and the industry?

NISE is not a funding agency and does not support R&D projects for implementation by other institutes and organisations. NISE on its own, and also in collaboration with other organisations, implements R&D projects in hydrogen energy and solar energy. In hydrogen energy, NISE can help the industry in carrying out field trials of its hydrogen-fuelled vehicles as there are limited numbers of hydrogen refuelling stations in the country. It can also help other institutes and organisations desirous of setting up solar hydrogen production-cum-dispensing facilities. It works along with the MNRE for monitoring R&D projects being implemented in the country in the area of hydrogen energy and solar energy and provides financial support. Capacity building is one of the main activities of NISE and it organises a number of training programmes for national and international participants. It conducts customised training programmes for some of the national organisations. It also organises national workshops for sharing the recent advances in hydrogen energy and fuel cells for the benefit of researchers and the industry.

What could be the best suited applications and use cases of hydrogen in India?

Hydrogen is already produced and used in large quantities in petroleum refineries and fertiliser units. Some other industries where hydrogen is used are chemical, glass, semiconductor and food processing. Among emerging applications, hydrogen has the potential to be used as a fuel in vehicles in India, which imports more than 80 per cent of its crude oil demand. Hydrogen can provide energy security to India as it can be produced from renewable energy sources. With the increasing penetration of renewable energy in the electricity grid and mitigation of generation curtailment from solar and wind farms, hydrogen can play the role of an energy storage medium for balancing the electricity grid. Power to gas is a new concept, which is catching up in Europe to make use of excess renewable electricity for hydrogen production. Hydrogen so produced can be injected into the natural gas grid. In the long term, it can also be used in iron and steel units as a reducing agent.

Recently, there was a report that NTPC and the MNRE have agreed to jointly launch a project on hydrogen-fuelled buses in Leh. Could you throw light on the project and the timeline for the first such bus to hit the roads?

A detailed proposal for the introduction of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles in Leh is being prepared by NTPC in consultation with vehicle manufacturers and other equipment suppliers. Once the proposal is finalised, it would be submitted to the MNRE for partial funding. The project may be taken up for implementation during 2020-21 after the necessary approvals are in place. Hydrogen required for the operation of hydrogen vehicles would be produced electrolytically using renewable energy in Leh. Electricity produced either from solar PV projects or from hydro plants will be utilised for hydrogen production to ensure that the hydrogen produced is green.

Is there also talk of a proposal on hydrogen-powered suburban trains?

Alstom has developed “CoradiaiLint”, a zero-emission train, which Germany proposes to launch commercially in its market. Indian Railways is also working on the development of a hydrogen-powered suburban train and has invited expressions of interest for industry participation. The hydrogen required for the operation of the suburban train is planned to be sourced from the industry in India. The deployment of hydrogen-powered trains for long distance routes will depend on further development of the technology.

What about a hydrogen power generating system?

There is a huge potential for the use of hydrogen in the power sector for electricity generation using fuel cells, conventional ICEs, hydrogen-fired gas turbines and combined cycle gas turbines. In the current gas turbine technology, a gas mixture containing a small quantity of hydrogen could be used. The power industry is making efforts to develop gas turbines that can be entirely operated on hydrogen within a decade’s time.

Fuel cells are versatile and can be used for power generation as well. In the past 10 years, several stationary fuel cells have been installed for power generation with a global installed capacity of 1.5 GW. The fuel cell units have been mostly installed in Japan, Germany, Korea and the US. In India, Intel has set up a megawatt-size fuel cell-based power generation unit in Bengaluru. IIT Delhi and BHU have also developed a small capacity ICE-based genset that is operated using hydrogen.

What are the challenges and constraints associated with the wide-scale adoption of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies?

Hydrogen and fuel cells are emerging technologies in the early stages of adoption globally. The main challenges associated with their adoption are the high cost of hydrogen and fuel cell-based systems, the lack of infrastructure for production and supply of hydrogen for hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, absence of uniform codes and standards and lack of awareness about these technologies. Most of the hydrogen and fuel cell-based systems are not commercially manufactured in India, which is one of the reasons for their high cost in India. In spite of the advantages associated with these technologies, there is hardly any demand for these systems in India due to the reasons mentioned earlier. Suitable policy and regulatory measures may help in the creation of demand for hydrogen and fuel cell technologies and will make them cost effective.

NISE has also developed a number of solar thermal applications like dryers-cum-space heating systems, milk chillers and cold storages. Is it possible to utilise solar thermal energy for hydrogen energy related applications?

Besides these applications, NISE has been involved in the development and installation of a central receiver system for generating high temperature, which can be used for power generation. High temperature heat generated by this technology could be used for hydrogen production through the thermochemical route, which requires high temperature for certain reactions. It is also theoretically possible to use the high temperature heat generated by solar thermal technologies for dissociating water for hydrogen production. Such heat can also be used for the dissociation of bio-methane for producing hydrogen and carbon black. Therefore, there is a considerable potential for the use of solar thermal energy for hydrogen energy production. Ultimately, this sustainable method of splitting water can meet the energy needs of humankind in the long run.

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