No hot air: Govt’s mission to make hydrogen fuel is costly, but doable

As the PM says, hydrogen power can drastically trim emissions and help India become fully energy independent; the challenge lies in making it commercially viable

Before 2047, its 100th year of Independence, India will become energy independent, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As India entered its 75th year of Independence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rolled out the National Hydrogen Mission (NHM) that aims to make the country a global hub for the production and export of green hydrogen. “It will be the basis of green growth through green jobs,” he said.

Before 2047, its 100th year of Independence, India will become energy independent, he said. Today, the country spends over ₹12 lakh-crore a year for energy imports.

Hydrogen as a fuel

Hydrogen as an alternative fuel that packs a lot of energy and is easy to source, for it can be produced from diverse domestic resources. According to the website of the US Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, the element is abundantly available naturally. “It’s stored in water (H2O), hydrocarbons (such as methane, CH4), and other organic matter,” it points out.

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But extracting it efficiently it from these compounds presents challenges. “Although the market for hydrogen as a transportation fuel is in its infancy, government and industry are working toward clean, economical, and safe hydrogen production and distribution for widespread use in fuel cell electric vehicles,” it says.

Also, hydrogen fuel has a low ignition energy and high combustion energy, and tends to leak easily from tanks. Hence the associated hazards have be addressed before hydrogen fuel becomes mainstream.

Also read: At 75, India going strong. And wrong?

Unlike fossil fuels and renewable sources such as wind and solar, hydrogen is not an energy source by itself. On the other hand, it’s an energy carrier. So, it has to be produced, or extracted, and stored before it can be used, said a News18 report. The best part of its use is that the by-product is not polluting carbon, but water.

According to the World Energy Council (WEC), “combusting one kilo of hydrogen releases three times more energy than a kilo of gasoline and produces only water”.

India’s hydrogen fuel ambitions

The August 15 announcement from Red Fort takes forward a 2021 budgetary proposal to introduce the NHM to generate hydrogen from green power sources. The News18 report said the idea was reiterated at an energy summit in April this year by then Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan. He had said policy makers saw hydrogen fuel as a viable way to control emissions.

“The enthusiasm about hydrogen has a simple reason: whether it’s used in a fuel cell or burned to create heat, wherever hydrogen replaces fossil fuels, it slows global warming,” Pradhan had observed. Hydrogen can be used not only in transportation, but also as a decarbonising agent for a range of industries, from iron and steel to chemicals, fertiliser and refining.

Shades of hydrogen

Hydrogen can be extracted from its compounds in various ways and, depending on the process, the product is classified as ‘grey’, ‘blue’, or ‘green’ hydrogen, said the report.

Citing a WEC report, it said that 96% of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels via carbon intensive processes. “Hydrogen thus obtained is called ‘grey’ hydrogen as the process, though not as expensive as the other methods, releases a lot of CO2.”

‘Grey’ becomes ‘blue’ when the CO2 emitted during the extraction is locked up through “carbon capture and storage (CCS) processes”. This is a rather expensive process.

‘Green’ hydrogen is one that’s produced from clean energy sources through electrolysis of energy. Here, the emissions are almost zero, which is what the governments want. But the process is expensive and not yet commercially viable.

Cost is likely to be India’s greatest concern in the NHM implementation. According to the News18 report, the Centre may plan an outlay of ₹800 crore over 2021-24 for pilots and R&D.  It may also rope in private players in its hydrogen energy push.

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