India is planning to capitalise on one of the most abundant elements on earth — hydrogen. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharman announced the National Hydrogen Mission during the Budget 2021-22 to gain from this universally-available element.
The green energy source could also bring together some of India’s biggest companies like Reliance, Tatas, Mahindras, and Indian Oil, according to Chaitanya Giri — a fellow of space and ocean studies with the Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House who wrote a paper on the Methane Economy.
According to him, the need of the hour is a coalition of stakeholders like the Hydrogen Council or the European Hydrogen Coalition. “Companies like Indian Oil, the Tatas, the Mahindras, the Eicher — let them be a part of the coalition. Then speciality chemicals companies like Reliance can be also a part of it,” he told Business Insider in an exclusive interview.
Why does India need a hydrogen coalition?
The answer is simple — no one company nor an industry can pull this off alone. You need the auto sector, fuel companies, speciality chemicals and advanced materials companies to work together.
To make hydrogen a feasible solution, India doesn’t need just fuel — it will need cars that can process it. It also needs fueling stations and technology to ensure it remains safe as Hydrogen is an explosive element by nature.
Countries like Germany have already demonstrated that a coalition is an excellent way forward. It aims to set up 400 hydrogen fueling stations by 2023. “They are using the Hydrogen Council to the best extent possible,” said Giri.
India can also seek help from Norway, Sweden or New Zealand to create a blueprint of a system. But their projects have to be scaled to meet the size of India. The population of these countries are only one-fourth the size of urban cities in India — Norway has a population of 55 lakh whereas Mumbai has over two crore people. At best, their national-scale ideas can be replicated to Indian cities but can be useful initially.
Giri believes that international players with technology to make hydrogen safe — like Air Products and Linde — are already here in India. “These companies will take up contracts for setting up gas infrastructure and storage devices alongside the highways. They will be crucial for dispensing infrastructure like gas fueling stations,” he said.
How will India make Hydrogen?
Currently, there are two approaches to collect hydrogen. One is the electrolysis of water. However, water is a scarce resource which can be split into two parts Hydrogen and one part Carbon. The hydrogen can be used for fuel and the leftover carbon, once solidified, can be used to create speciality materials for sectors like space, aerospace, auto, shipbuilding, electronics and more.
While these two approaches are already on the market, there is one more approach which is not yet business-ready — absorbing Methane directly from the air and then using scrubbers to convert that gas into hydrogen and carbon.
Prototypes are already in the works in Europe, Saudi Arabia and the US. “We just need to implement them on-ground and commercialise these technologies in a way that you have a substantial quantity of fuel,” explained Giri
What will happen to lithium batteries and electric cars?
Electric cars are currently the flavour of the season but the use of lithium batteries comes with a set of challenges.
For one, most of the lithium batteries are imported and there are ‘range anxiety’ issues which hydrogen fuel can ease. Electric cars can go for around 200-250 kilometres before needing to recharge. Hydrogen cars will be able to go twice the distance if not more. That means less fueling stations and less stress for the drivers.
Most importantly, there’s more hydrogen around than there is lithium in the world. “Lithium batteries will fall behind due to the sheer abundance of Hydrogen,” said Giri.
Hydrogen, if done right, will be a good alternative for a conventional internal combustion engine. It can also help meet the massive energy needs of India’s exploding population.