The Ukraine standoff should accelerate India’s push for hydrogen

The challenge for India is to create natural gas from coal, strip hydrogen from the carbon atom to which it binds to produce methane and heavier gases such as ethane and propane, that together constitute natural gas

Russia supplies gas to Europe through an old pipeline that runs through Ukraine, through Nord Stream, an underwater pipeline that runs from Vyborg, not far from St Petersburg, southwest through the Baltic Sea

As the standoff over Ukraine drags on, Russia has entered into an agreement with China to feed the latter’s energy hunger with 10 billion cubic metres of natural gas, piped in from the east. It serves to underline the importance of securing large volumes of fuel for a country like India. We could seek to contract supplies from other countries. Or we could seek to use our own endowments of natural resources to secure the energy we need.

The 10 billion cubic metres of additional gas that China will buy from Russia is, of course, only a fraction of the gas that flows from Russia to Europe (in 2020, Gazprom supplied Europe with 180 billion cubic metres of gas, and that figure is higher in a non-pandemic normal year). Russia supplies gas to Europe through an old pipeline that runs through Ukraine, through Nord Stream, an underwater pipeline that runs from Vyborg, not far from St Petersburg, southwest through the Baltic Sea, to the German coast near the border with Poland, and through Nord Stream 2, two additional pipelines that have been completed but await German regulatory approval to be commissioned.

Russia wants to signal that it can find alternate markets for its gas, if Europe wants to turn its back on Russian gas, toeing the American line on crippling sanctions against Russia, including shutting Russia out of the Swift system of financial messaging. But it is only signalling, for the time being. It points to the need for a country like India to prepare for geopolitical threats to energy security.

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The challenge for India is to create natural gas from coal, strip hydrogen from the carbon atom to which it binds to produce methane and heavier gases such as ethane and propane, that together constitute natural gas. And this must be done without producing carbon dioxide, which would add to climate challenge. Carbon is a valuable material, whether as carbon fibre or graphene.

The point is to create a process that would make use of India’s most abundant source of energy, coal, to produce a totally green fuel in an economic fashion.

Also read: Ukraine crisis: EU scrambles for options amid fears Russia will cut gas supply

Linde of Germany is experimenting with membrane technology to harvest hydrogen from methane. There are multiple such efforts going on in different parts of the world. India must join this race of discovery, and lead it, using its abundant talent in science and technology. The government could ask its own specialised labs to undertake the research. Let an American DARPA-like agency invite proposals to fund research in this area. (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency identifies technological possibilities and challenges, invites proposals for solutions and funds the promising ones. Many technologies that enrich human life today came out of DARPA’s efforts, including Moderna’s messenger RNA vaccines.)

Let the government offer a prize, a sizeable amount, say, ₹750 crore, to any research institution, startup, university department or private company that comes up with a proposal, viable enough to be funded further, for a technological solution.

Two questions need answers before we move ahead. Why discuss an energy solution for India, in the context of a geopolitical tug of war over natural gas that could see gas prices spike in Europe? If Russia is subjected to secondary sanctions, that is, if any entity that deals with sanctioned Russian entities is cut off from dollar networks, Russian exports of gas would go unpaid for, as no European bank would want to be kicked off dollar access. If Europe turns off the tap of Russian gas, or if Russia cuts off supplies in retaliation against sanctions, the gas that Russia would have to spare cannot readily be made available to the rest of the world.

Gas needs to be transported, via pipeline or as liquefied natural gas in large tankers. Pipelines cannot be magicked out of thin air, nor liquefaction or regasification terminals. Additional gas container bottoms need to be built as well. Europeans would buy up whatever gas is available, from the Middle East, Indonesia and Australia, in addition to whatever they can lay their hands on of supplies from the Americas. So, war in Ukraine leading to sanctions against Russia and shutting off Russian gas to Europe would lead to a spike in the prices of gas and substitute fuels. This points to the need for self-reliant energy security measures in India that tap domestic sources of energy.

The second question is, why talk of hydrogen from coal, instead of the obvious solution of producing gas from coal? We need gas for gas, right; why talk of hydrogen for gas? India needs energy security but of a sustainable kind. The European Commission recently classified natural gas as a green fuel, along with nuclear power. Gas produces less carbon harm than coal does, but that is all. It produces half the carbon dioxide that coal does. From the point of mitigating climate change, gas is better than coal, but not nearly as good as hydrogen, which, if produced using renewable or non-fossil power, is altogether carbon-free.

If hydrogen is the preferred fuel, why not produce it straight from splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen? This hydrolysing route is what Ambani and Adani propose to adopt, using energy derived from solar panels. Why involve coal in the process?

Also read: Why India should support Russia in its standoff with the West over Ukraine

There is energy spent on the process of producing natural gas from coal, the most traditional method being to blow oxygen, and powdered coal through steam, to produce syngas, which contains a mixture of hydrogen, natural gas and carbon monoxide. This conversion costs money and requires energy to be spent.

For such conversion to be viable, two conditions must be met. One, the process has to produce more energy, from the end product of hydrogen, than is supplied to engender the process. If the process of conversion of coal to gas is exothermic, the chemical reaction will produce heat that will not have to be first generated outside the process and supplied to it.

Two, the value of the end product, hydrogen and carbon, must be higher than the cost of producing these. Carbon is an increasingly valuable material. Carbon fibre is being deployed in ever more diverse uses, from car body panels, aeroplane fuselages and even buildings. As graphene, it has even more interesting uses in areas as diverse as chemotherapy and electronics.

Producing carbon in assorted forms and hydrogen, instead of making just hydrogen, makes for cost-effectiveness. The point is to develop technologies that would make such conversion economically viable and save on carbon emissions.

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