Hydrogen Fuel- A Greener Alternative?

Hydrogen fuel greener alternative?

Efficient energy production and supply are critical for the economic development of every nation. Our energy demands extend to every sphere of life, be it domestic, industrial, transport, etc. Therefore, energy production has always been an important industrial sector. This sector is of utmost importance for emerging economies and developing nations, as energy production and export might accelerate the country’s economic gains significantly. 

Most of the energy that we consume originates from conventional energy sources such as fossil fuels. But in the wake of the current climate crisis, and fossil fuels being the top culprit, there is a search for a cleaner and sustainable fuel alternative. The criteria for an alternative fuel are zero-emission, cost-effective, efficient, and sustainable. Hydrogen seems to fit the said criteria very well, hence it is one of the most suitable contenders as an alternative to petroleum-based fuels.

Hydrogen, the energy carrier

Hydrogen is the lightest element in our periodic table and has a relatively higher specific energy (energy per unit mass), thus becoming an excellent energy carrier. When pure hydrogen mixes with oxygen, it gives water and heat. This reaction takes place inside a battery cell, called the fuel cell. The first hydrogen fuel cell was invented back in 1842 by Sir William Robert Grove. During the initial days, the amount of electricity generated by a fuel cell was less, but extensive research over the last few years has improved the efficiency of a fuel cell. 

As a fuel, hydrogen has wide applications, but at present, it is primarily used in electronic vehicles with fuel cells. What are fuel cells? Fuel cells are like regular batteries, that allow the generation of electricity as a result of a chemical reaction between hydrogen and air (oxygen). The by-products are heat and water. The electricity generated by fuel cells helps in the propulsion of the electric motor which drives the vehicle. The principle of fuel cell electric vehicles is exactly similar to those of electric vehicles, but the vehicles run on the electricity generated using hydrogen instead of any other sources. Nonetheless, hydrogen can also be used as a fuel for an internal combustion engine. The United Kingdom demonstrated that using hydrogen to fuel internal combustion engines could reduce CO2 emissions by 40%.

What is Grey, Blue and Green Hydrogen?

Types of hydrogen based on its production method (Photo/ Energy Education/ University of Calgary).

Although we have an abundant amount of hydrogen in the atmosphere, it is not in its pure form. Purification of hydrogen requires energy hence it is said to be the carrier of energy and not the source of energy. The most common methods to extract hydrogen are steam-methane reforming and water electrolysis. Of the two methods, the costs involved in producing hydrogen from electrolysis are higher and require a constant supply of electricity, as a result, around 90% of the hydrogen gas that we use as fuel comes from steam-methane reforming. The technique of producing hydrogen using steam-methane reforming results in the release of large quantities of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. The hydrogen generated using this technique is called ‘grey hydrogen’ as it is not helping us with our ultimate goal of zero emissions. However, if the CO2 released during methane reforming is trapped using carbon capture techniques, it is called ‘blue hydrogen’. This reduces the carbon footprints from the reforming process. Nonetheless, the hydrogen produced using electrolysis powered by renewable sources of electricity provides the most sustainable choice and is called ‘green hydrogen’. Researchers are also looking at alternative ways to produce hydrogen using solar-driven processes and biological processes, these involve photochemical, photobiological, and solar thermochemical reactions.

Applications of hydrogen fuel (Photo/Australian manufacture forum).

What makes hydrogen better than conventional fuels?

Hydrogen, as a fuel, offers numerous advantages over conventional fossil fuel-based energy sources. Reducing the emission of greenhouse gases by zero tailpipe emission is the most significant contribution of hydrogen fuel to our climate actions. Moreover, hydrogen is a very energy-efficient fuel. The energy in 1 Kg of hydrogen is equivalent to that of 2.8 Kg of gasoline, thus, there is a scope to reduce fuel costs significantly. Not to mention that an electric propulsion motor, used in fuel cell electric vehicles, is 2-3 times more efficient than an internal combustion engine. Another advantage of hydrogen fuel electric vehicles is very less refilling time in contrast to the most advanced  and efficient electric vehicles, which take a minimum of 15-20 minutes to charge fully. 

There are certain grey areas amongst all these advantages. The major drawback of hydrogen fuel is its transport and storage. Being very lightweight, hydrogen contains low energy at room temperature and normal atmospheric pressure. It is efficient only when compressed by lowering the temperature and under high pressure. It requires low ignition energy and has high combustion energy, thus very inflammable, and can cause explosions at the storage facilities if due care is not taken. However, the advantages of hydrogen fuel outweigh its drawbacks by a substantial margin. So, fuel cell electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel are becoming common now. This is still limited to light-duty domestic vehicles and the market for commercial vehicles is slowly expanding.

The dynamics between the Indian economy and hydrogen fuel

Hydrogen fuel promises plenty of advantages over conventional fuels in terms of environment as well as economy. The government of India is aiming to emerge as the leader in the hydrogen fuel sector. In its efforts toward attaining it, the government of India launched a ‘National Hydrogen Mission’ in August 2021. The programme is directed towards upscaling the production of hydrogen using renewable sources (green hydrogen). However, the successful implementation of the hydrogen economy in India demands a combination of relevant government policies and industrial collaborations. To accelerate the pace of the mission, renewable energy companies like Acme groups, Azure power, Fortum India, etc. have formed the independent green hydrogen association (IGHPA). They aim to provide a platform for the government and the companies to exchange ideas that will help India to become a leader in the hydrogen economy. They are channelising the economic funding and the regulatory policies to this goal. Moreover, industrial giants like Reliance Industries, Larson and Turbo, JSW steel, Jindal steel, Indian oil, etc. are also looking at setting up green hydrogen units at various locations throughout the country. 

India has successfully begun its journey towards the implementation of the hydrogen economy. The use of hydrogen fuel is gaining quantum in the domestic transport sector. The objective is to expand it to the commercial transport, electricity generation, and industrial sector. The economic analysts have suggested that India can venture into the production of green hydrogen as well as blue hydrogen, the combination will increase India’s potential for hydrogen export. Hydrogen fuel indeed promises us an economic growth, a sustainable energy choice, and a greener future.

By Amruta Joshi

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