Powering hydrogen mobility for India

by Dr Chaitanya Giri 26 Dec 2019


Toyota ushered in a new era in vehicle technology with the launch of production of its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell-powered sedan

During his week-long visit to the US in early October 2019, a group of energy executives met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Houston. One of them was Seifi Ghasemi, chief executive of Air Products and Chemicals Inc, the world’s leading industrial gas company with the largest hydrogen pipeline supply and fueling station network. Air Products already has $500 million (Rs 3,543 crore) in investments in India’s industrial gas infrastructure but what can really ramp it up is the company’s hydrogen business.

Hydrogen is the most abundant fuel in the universe, and the cleanest. This is most relevant to the decarbonisation of the transportation sector, a global environmental priority. Advanced G20 economies, which are also the leaders of the global automotive industry, are pushing for the mass commercialisation of alternative automobile engines technologies, particularly lithium-ion battery-powered electric vehicles (Li-ion battery electric vehicles / BEVs) and hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles (HFCEVs).

Hydrogen: a virtuous option
For India, which is moving its automotive industry to clean fuel, hydrogen presents a virtuous option. It will be in good company: Germany, France, Japan, Australia, Norway and the US are strong proponents of hydrogen mobility. South Korea’s Hyundai, Japan’s Toyota and Honda and Germany’s Mercedes-Benz have already gone to market with their hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Air Products Hydrogen fuel station

An Air Products' hydrogen fueling station that provides a liquid hydrogen supply to Stark Area Regional Transit Authority (STARK)in Ohio to fuel its zero-emission buses.

Indian automakers like Tata Motors and Mahindra & Mahindra have tested prototypes of HFCEV pick-up vans, buses and utility vehicles almost a decade ago, but have put commercialisation in cold storage. But the government has been more consistent.

Over the past two decades, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, as well as the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, have been studying the techno-economic demands of hydrogen mobility in India. In 2019, state-run oil and gas companies like the Indian Oil Corp. and the Union Territory of Delhi, have set up hydrogen-blended compressed natural gas (CNG) gas stations. There has been a considerable amount of early-stage R&D undertaken in various public and private laboratories across India to study full hydrogen mobility. However, the fillip necessary to scale up these early-bird technologies is missing.

It’s time to ramp up these efforts. Hydrogen mobility can be a major catalyst for India’s clean energy, oil and gas, automotive, rail, public infrastructure, and advanced materials industries. India is one of the largest emitters of anthropogenic methane and producer of waste. The captured methane can be cracked to generate hydrogen. Carbon-capture (methane capture) technologies present a rich commercial opportunity and make India compliant with the climate action goals beyond the Paris agreement. India also has abundant and untapped reserves of gas hydrates, shale gas, and coal-bed methane which will find a market, if hydrogen mobility is actively pursued. It can ensure India’s energy security for over 100 years.

This will help India increase the share of methane/natural gas consumption from the current 7 percent of the total energy mix, to 15 percent by 2030. This was the primary focus of Prime Minister Modi’s energy diplomacy in Houston. Companies like Air Products will be crucial in establishing hydrogen gas storage and supply infrastructure.

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways can push for augmenting the Bharatmala Pariyojana megaproject into a Hydrogen Bharatmala Pariyojana, where hydrogen gas storage and refueling infrastructure can be set up with funds from controlled-access toll cess. Similar augmenting policies can be built via partnerships between energy companies and metropolitan governing institutions.

Hyundai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle

Hyundai had showcased its next-generation Nexo fuel cell electric vehicle at the India-Korea Business Summit in February 2018. The Nexo is capable of travelling 609 kilometres on a single charge, the best among fuel cell-powered vehicles in the world.

A cross-sectoral consortium of Indian automobile manufacturers, oil and gas companies, advanced material and electric and energy storage companies called Hydrogen India can help troubleshoot technological, economic and transport policies to maintain a viable pan-India hydrogen infrastructure through synergetic mechanisms. Hydrogen India will be a welcome addition to the Hydrogen Council, a global consortium of automotive, gas, advanced materials, aerospace, rail and alternative energy companies, set up during the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017, to which firms like Air Products belong.

India has many reasons to pursue hydrogen mobility. It will allow the creation of large volumes of intellectual property from India, spawn much-needed skilled employment, reduce energy and techno-economic dependency, and help it contribute to global climate action goals.

Dr Chaitanya Giri

About the author
Dr Chaitanya Giri is the Space and Oceans Studies Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai. This article is derived from a paper on 'The Methane Economy'.

(This column was first featured in the October 15, 2019 issue of Autocar Professional)