National Maritime Foundation Report on: Hydrogen Fuel — The Option-of-Choice for India

By September 19, 2020 13   min read  (2617 words)

September 19, 2020 |

This is the fifth and final segment of the NMF’s five-part advocacy[1] of the adoption of hydrogen derived from Ocean Renewable Energy Resources (ORER) and the adoption of this hydrogen-fuel, instead of fossil-fuels, for India’s maritime-transport and port sectors.

It builds upon the strength of the preceding part (Part 4), which had demonstrated that far from being a mere theoretical speculation, this ‘hybrid-solution’ is a rapidly maturing option for the maritime sector as a whole.  Since the maritime sector must necessarily incorporate naval facets as well as those related to mercantile shipping, arguments will be presented that address the issue of hydrogen-fuel being used to power warships — both, surface combatants and subsurface ones, and, the appropriateness of this option when contextualised to India.  As such, it offers policy-makers within the Government of India a viable and clean-energy alternative that could terminate India’s current geopolitical vulnerability arising from the largescale import-dependence from foreign sources of fossil-fuels.

The Naval Context

When considering the naval environment in the context of ‘sources-of-energy’ and their applications, it is important to avoid three common mistakes:

The first occurs when analysts project ‘naval’ energy-issues as being so unique as to be entirely divorced from the more generic ‘maritime’ ones.  In actual fact, all naval issues are subsets of maritime ones.  Hence, in terms of accepted Set Theory, what applies to the ‘maritime’ superset will apply to the ‘naval’ subset as well.  It is obvious that this would remain true of energy-related issues as well.

The second error to be avoided is to think of such naval applications-of-energy solely in terms of the seagoing platforms.  For instance, manned naval combatant-platforms, whether deployed on the surface (i.e., warships and auxiliaries) or subsurface platforms (submarines) must, like their civilian (mercantile) counterparts, be berthed in ports and harbours to enable them to carry out maintenance routines as well as to logistically replenish themselves.  These ‘naval’ ports and harbours are often kept distinct from commercial ones in deference to the needs of security.  Moreover, extensive repair and refitting facilities, complete with a variety of facilities for drydocking such ships, are frequently co-located with these naval ports and harbours, and as a result, go by the generic appellation, naval dockyards.  It is true that the demand for energy to sustain and maintain a naval dockyard is far lower than that of a major port such as the JNPT, which operates ship and cargo services on a 24-hour basis.  By way of comparison, the annual power requirement of the Naval Dockyard at Mumbai, for instance, is around 5,000 MWh,[2] while that of the JNPT is 84,000 MWh.[3]  That said, neither is 5,000 MWh a small number in and of itself, nor is the Naval Dockyard at Mumbai the only naval port-facility — there are much larger ones, such as the new Indian Naval Base at Karwar on the western coast of India, and, extensive bases in and off Visakhapatnam on the eastern shore of the country.

The third error to be avoided concerns the combatant platforms themselves.  Where major manned surface-platforms are concerned, it must be admitted that the scaling-up of hydrogen-powered fuel cells for warship propulsion, especially where the ships in question are high-performance frontline combatants such as frigates, destroyers, cruisers, etc., is still at an early design or trial phase.  On the other hand, this is precisely the point in time for growing navies such as the Indian Navy, to invest its technical manpower in this cutting-edge development activity, especially if it is going to continue its progress from a buyer’s navy to a builder’s navy and thence to an innovator’s navy.  The error itself, however, would be to ignore the increasingly strong trend toward the incorporation by the navy, of unmanned-platforms.  These include a variety of tethered (non-autonomous) drones as well as semi-autonomous and fully autonomous ones.  This is a very significant trend when it comes to the adoption of hydrogen-fuel, since the prevailing state of the art is that the efficacy of hydrogen-fuel to drive medium-sized surface vessels, including passenger-ferries, is already well-proven, both technologically as well as commercially.[4]    The usage of hydrogen-fuel cells to drive small, slender, Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) offers enormous advantages in terms of stealth, endurance, recharging-times.[5]  As navies, including the Indian Navy, realise that unmanned (autonomous / semi-autonomous) surface and subsurface drones can utilise hybrid propulsion-solutions that utilise hydrogen generated from ORER, the race to put these propulsion packages to sea will be well and truly joined.  For India and its navy, this holds out the additional and nearly-irresistible attractive option of helping the country reduce its energy-dependence upon West Asia and hence its vulnerability to the possible closure of the Strait of Hormuz as a consequence of Great Power politics.

Moreover, the additional power available through the adoption of hydrogen fuel-cells can be profitably utilised to accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT).[6]  Likewise, long-endurance UUVs powered by hydrogen-fuel cells are already being used to enhance Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) and related applications, including both, civilian and military scientific observations, apart from their obvious utility in anti-submarine warfare.  Further, the time taken to refuel UUVs, using hydrogen, is much lower than that involved in the recharging of batteries.  To take an example from the road-transport sector, recharging electric car-batteries, given the existing state-of-the-art, takes multiple hours while hydrogen-refuelling can be achieved in a matter of a minutes.[7]

In sum, while the use of hydrogen-fuel to power large manned surface-combatants might well still lie in the middle-future, its usage to propel unmanned platforms is already a present reality.  Thus, where India and the Indian Navy are concerned, both are already late off the blocks and considerable acceleration is clearly called for.

Where subsurface naval vessels are concerned, the adoption of hydrogen-fuel is already a reality in a few European navies.  Both, the German Navy and the Italian Navy currently deploy the Type 212A Class, air-independent propulsion (AIP)[8] submarine (the export version is known as Type 214 and is the successor to the Type 209 operated by the Indian Navy), which is propelled by Proton-Exchange Membrane (PEM) hydrogen-fuel cells.[9]  Such submarines can have a sustained submerged operation period of three weeks and are ideal for stealth applications due to the sharply-reduced noise-levels from the engines.  Coupled with nonmagnetic components used in their construction, these submarines can remain virtually undetectable and can even operate in shallow waters with depths as low as 17- metres, allowing them to operate much closer to the coast, as compared to other submarines.[10]


Hydrogen-Fuel Adoption — The Opportunities for India

‘Green’ hydrogen has the greatest potential to address India’s quest for a clean, zero-emission fuel that could cater to the demands of the country’s transport sector.  As a transition towards clean energy resources is mandated by SDG 7 (‘Affordable and Clean Energy for All’) and the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, a concerted effort towards framing policy for the adoption of hydrogen-fuel by the transport-sector in general and automobile manufacturers in particular, is likely to yield rich dividends for India, particularly over the long run.  Not only will hydrogen-based clean fuel revolutionise transportation, it will also play a major role in enhancing the quality of life of the ordinary urban Indian resident by improving the air-quality index and reduce pollution-related diseases.  ‘Smart’ vehicles, powered by hydrogen-fuel-cells that can meet the vehicle’s propulsion-requirement as well as powering AI and IoT applications, can easily cater to the needs of the large and growing Indian middle class.  This is also a great opportunity for the Indian automobile, energy, and defence industries to exploit the market potential not only domestically, but also abroad via the Government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative.

Hydrogen-fuel can also play a noteworthy role in India’s port-led development mega-project, SAGARMALA.[11]  Connecting ports along India’s coast line as well as the hinterland via inland waterways, using hydrogen-powered vessels, both for transhipment and multi-modal logistics, would be a definitive manifestation of the country’s transition to a ‘Blue Economy’.  This will accelerate the process of adopting clean energy in India and reduce emissions in line with Paris 2015 targets and in achieving the SDG #7.  It will not only contribute to the economy explicitly, but also implicitly, by eradicating expenditure on climate change mitigating infrastructure.  With enhanced connectivity, the likelihood of domestic and foreign investment in the country’s proposed industrial corridors, such as the Vizag-Chennai Industrial Corridor (VCIC), will increase.[12]  New opportunities can be seized to drive micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) towards ‘Industry 4.0’.  Tourism — especially hydrogen-fuelled cruise-shipping and passenger ferries — is another are where significant benefits would accrue.

Space is yet another important sector where hydrogen-fuel would almost certainly play a critical role.  With India’s rapidly expanding exploratory activities in outer space, and given the missions already planned for the Moon and Mars, as also those as the space station, there is a clear need for more powerful and efficient engines.  This requires the use of hydrogen containing fuels such a methane and hydrogen peroxide. The India Space Research Organization (ISRO) is currently working on rocket-engines that are fuelled by methane, which can be produced by hydrogen reacting with carbon dioxide for such applications.[13]

Figure 1 depicts a few of the more evident sectors that could gain demonstrably from the adoption of hydrogen-fuel by India.

Fig 1: Potential Sectors for Hydrogen-fuel Utilisation in India

Source: Created by Dr. Sameer Guduru



It would be recalled that Part 1 of this quintet of articles had set out the components of India’s primary-energy basket and the geopolitical vulnerabilities arising from India’s need to import a substantial proportion of these, particularly crude-oil, from West Asia.  Part 2 had thereafter dwelt upon the principal form of secondary energy, namely, electricity.  Importantly, it had demonstrated that projections disseminated by the Government of India in respect of India’s production-capacity of electricity were excessively optimistic.  It had gone on to show that additional sources of energy (apart from solar and wind) would be required if India was to meet its targets for electricity-generation capacity, while simultaneously meeting the commitments it had made at the Paris COP, in 2015.  It had also addressed the country’s transport sector, whose demand for energy by way of petroleum-products drives much of India’s oil-based dependence upon imports, and hence makes a significant contribution to the country’s geopolitical vulnerability.  In an effort to mitigate this dependence (quite apart from the environmental aspects), it introduced India’s ongoing drive  to switch to Electrically-driven Vehicles (EVs).  Since a critical ingredient for the cathodes of batteries used by all electrically-driven vehicles (EVs) is cobalt, the need for cobalt makes new, but equally critical geographic areas the focus of the geostrategies that drive India’s geoeconomics and hence shape its geopolitics.  Part 3  drew attention to the very substantial potential offered to India by Ocean Renewable Energy Resources (ORER) for the addition of requisite capacity in terms of ‘green-energy installations’ and provided substantive baseline information on the various forms of ORER.  Part 4 had shown that the economic and functional viability of hydrogen-fuel for the maritime sector had already been proven, and had advocated the adoption of a hybrid-model wherein the hydrogen could be sourced from ORER variants such as Offshore Wind, Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) and Ocean Wave Energy Conversion (OWEC).

It is clear from the arguments presented in this final tranche of the quintet that the hybrid model of hydrogen-production from ORER is highly relevant not only to mercantile shipping and civilian ports, but equally to naval assets and their associated naval ports and dockyards.  On the one hand, it is true that efforts to produce hydrogen using ORER still are in a nascent stage.  On the other, if India is to ever stop being merely a supplicant for technologies that have been matured abroad, it is precisely at such nascent stages of technological-development that its investment by way of personnel, finance and policy-support must be the greatest.  Once the technology is matured abroad, it will come at a price that will need to be measured not only in fiscal terms, but in geopolitical ones as well.  Given that shipping — whether at sea or in ports — is a very major contributor to carbon emissions, the adoption by India of clean-energy alternatives for the maritime sector, is the need of the hour.  A truly exciting prospect is the central role that hydrogen-fuel derived from ORER could play in realising the promise of port-led development under the aegis of the SAGARMALA mega-project.  Hydrogen-fuel-powered ships, moving along India’s inland waterways could be meaningfully utilised for the transhipment of cargo and its multi-modal transportation, as well as for passenger movement.  Hydrogen fuel can also enable faster adoption of technologies related to Industry 4.0 such as AI, IoT.  These are no longer technologies that lie in some distant and indeterminate future.  That future is already upon us.  For India to become self-sufficient in energy, it is necessary to wholeheartedly adopt an ORER-hydrogen hybrid model and to ride it as its future-ready solution.


About the Authors 

* Dr Sameer Guduru, PhD, is an Associate Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation.  His research focusses upon a wide range of technical issues relevant to India’s maritime domain.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

 **Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Retd), is the Director-General of the National Maritime Foundation (NMF).  He is a prolific writer and a globally renowned strategic analyst who specialises in a wide-range of maritime affairs and related issues.  He may be contacted at [email protected]


[1] For Parts 1 to 4, See:

(a)  Sameer Guduru, “Adoption by India of Hydrogen: An Ocean Renewable Energy Approach Part 1”, 12 May 2020,

(b)  Sameer Guduru, “Adoption by India of Hydrogen: An Ocean Renewable Energy Approach Part 2” 31 May, 2020,

(c)  Sameer Guduru, VAdm Pradeep Chauhan, “Hydrogen-Fuel Adoption: An Ocean Renewable Energy Approach Part 3: Ocean Renewable Energy As A Viable Alternative”, 09 July 2020,

(d)  Sameer Guduru, VAdm Pradeep Chauhan, “Hydrogen-Fuel Adoption: An Ocean Renewable Energy Approach Part 4: Hydrogen Fuel from ‘ORER’ — A Hybrid Solution for Maritime Activity”, 15 September 2020,

[2] Value ascertained from senior functionaries of the Naval Dockyard, Mumbai, 15 September 2020.

[3] Port Strategy Website, “Wind Power for JNPT”, 12 July 2013,

[4] Helge Weydahl et al “Fuel cell systems for long-endurance autonomous underwater vehicles – challenges and benefits.” International Journal of Hydrogen Energy 45 (2020): 5543-5553;

[5] Weydahl et al, Supra 4

[6] Wingrove, Martyn. “Safer ship navigation with AI.” (accessed July 15, 2019)

[7]Graham, Rachel. “Hydrogen fuel cells vs electric cars: What you need to know but couldn’t ask.” (accessed February 14, 2020).

[8] Air-independent propulsion (AIP), is any form of marine propulsion technology which allows a non-nuclear submarine to operate underwater for a sustained period of time without access to atmospheric oxygen either by surfacing or by using a snorkel.

[9] Seaforces Online, “German Navy Type 212A Class Submarine”,

Also See: Tom Kington, “Italy Matches French Naval Tie-up with German Sub Partnership”, Defence News, 22 July 2019,

[10] Roblin, Sebastien. “Why Germany’s New Super Stealth Submarines Could Take on Any Navy.” (accessed June 6, 2017)

[11] Sagarmala Project Website, Government of India,


[13] Ramesh, M. “ISRO is developing a methane-powered rocket engine.” (accessed September 3, 2019)


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