As a fuel, hydrogen has a critical role to play in driving the paradigm shift towards a green and sustainable economy. Up to the end of October 2020, there were about 161 operating fuel cells at 108 facilities in the United States with a total of about 250 MW of electricity generation capacity – including the largest one at the Red Lion Energy Center in Delaware with about 25 MW electricity generation capacity. Use of hydrogen-based clean power generation will increase further in the post-COVID era. It is also expected that the cost of production of hydrogen will be much lower than it is today… - P. K. Chatterjee (PK)

Although, as far as the development of new sources of energy is concerned, of late solar energy has been gaining ubiquitous support and prominence, almost parallelly the hydrogen technology is being developed at a rapid pace. In the coming days, at many applications (especially in power sector) these two technologies will function as complementary to each other.

As per International Energy Agency, (IEA), “Hydrogen and energy have a long shared history – powering the first internal combustion engines over 200 years ago to becoming an integral part of the modern refining industry. It is light, storable, energy-dense, and produces no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases. But for hydrogen to make a significant contribution to clean energy transitions, it needs to be adopted in sectors where it is almost completely absent, such as transport, buildings and power generation.”

The development

Almost two years back, IEA found that supplying hydrogen to industrial users was becoming a major business around the world. That time the demand for hydrogen had grown more than three-fold since 1975. However, almost the entire production of hydrogen was dependent on fossil fuel. Naturally, the production of hydrogen was responsible for CO2 emissions of around 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, equivalent to the CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia together.

Since then the scenario has changed a lot. As per IEA’s latest report (2021), “The time is ripe to tap into hydrogen’s potential contribution to a sustainable energy system. In 2019, at the time of the release of the IEA’s landmark report ‘The Future of Hydrogen’ for the G20, only France, Japan and Korea had strategies for the use of hydrogen. Today, 17 governments have released hydrogen strategies, more than 20 governments have publicly announced that they are working to develop strategies, and numerous companies are seeking to tap into hydrogen business opportunities. Such efforts are timely: hydrogen will be needed for an energy system with net zero emissions.”

IEA’s ‘Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector’, states that the use of hydrogen will extend to several parts of the energy sector and grow six-fold from today’s levels to meet 10% of total final energy consumption by 2050. This will all be supplied from low-carbon sources.

Present status

According to IEA’s ‘Global Hydrogen Review 2021,’ currently, global production of low-carbon hydrogen is minimal, its cost is not yet competitive, and its use in promising sectors such as industry and transport remains limited – but there are encouraging signs that it is on the cusp of significant cost declines and widespread global growth.

A few pilot projects are underway to produce steel and chemicals with low-carbon hydrogen, with other industrial uses under development. The costs of fuel cells that run on hydrogen are continuously falling, and sales of fuel-cell vehicles are growing.

Obstacles on the way

Although, use of hydrogen as a fuel is advantageous in several respects, its cost of production is still very high that needs to be lowered. That’s why IEA points out, “Investments and focused policies are needed to close the price gap between low-carbon hydrogen and emissions-intensive hydrogen produced from fossil fuels. Depending on the prices of natural gas and renewable electricity, producing hydrogen from renewables can cost between 2 and 7 times as much as producing it from natural gas without carbon capture. But with technological advances and economies of scale, the cost of making hydrogen with solar PV electricity can become competitive with hydrogen made with
natural gas.”

Capacity of electrolysers

Global capacity of electrolysers, which produce hydrogen from water using electricity, doubled over the last five years, with about 350 projects currently under development and another 40 projects in early stages of development. Should all these projects be realised, global hydrogen supply from electrolysers – which creates zero emissions provided the electricity used is clean – would reach eight million tonnes by 2030. This is a huge increase from today’s level of less than 50 000 tonnes – but remains well below the 80 million tonnes required in 2030 in the IEA pathway to net zero emissions by 2050.

As per IEA, practically all hydrogen use in 2020 was for refining and industrial applications. However, hydrogen can be used in many more applications than those are common today. The gas has important potential uses in sectors where emissions are particularly challenging to reduce, such as chemicals, steel, long-haul trucking, shipping and aviation.

The challenge at present

The broader issue is that policy action so far focuses on the production of low-carbon hydrogen, while the necessary corresponding steps that are required to build demand in new applications are limited. Enabling greater use of hydrogen in industry and transport will require much stronger policy measures to foster the construction of the necessary storage, transmission and charging facilities.

As IEA points out, countries with hydrogen strategies have committed at least USD 37 billion to the development and deployment of hydrogen technologies, and the private sector has announced additional investment of USD 300 billion. But putting the hydrogen sector on path consistent with global net zero emissions by 2050 requires USD 1 200 billion of investment between now and 2030.

What needs to be done?

The governments could stimulate demand and reduce price differences through carbon pricing, mandates, quotas and hydrogen requirements in public procurement. In addition, international cooperation is needed to establish standards and regulations, and to create global hydrogen markets that could spur demand in countries with limited potential to produce low-carbon hydrogen and create export opportunities for countries with large renewable energy supplies or large CO2 storage potential – suggests IEA.

The Indian scenario

India is the country naturally blessed with the scope of producing huge amount of green hydrogen. As promised in the Union Budget for 2021-22, on India’s 75th independence day i.e., 15th August, 2022, Prime Minster Narendra Modi had announced a Hydrogen Mission.

Our prudent government is already active in scaling up the gas pipeline infrastructure across the length and breadth of the country. It has also taken steps to reform our complete power grid that includes smart grids. All these will lead to the effective integration of renewable energy in the current energy mix.

Indigenous scientific development: Indian researchers have come up with an innovative hydrogen manufacture route that increases its production three times and lowers the energy required that could pave the path towards environment-friendly hydrogen fuel at a lower cost.

In addition to having about three-fold higher calorific value compared to non-renewable energy sources such as coal and gasoline, the combustion of hydrogen to release energy and produces water – thus it is completely non-polluting. Due to the extremely low abundance of molecular hydrogen in the earth’s atmosphere (350 ppbv), electric-field driven breakdown of water is an attractive route for production of hydrogen. However, such electrolysis requires high energy input and is associated with slow rate of hydrogen production. The use of expensive platinum-iridium-based catalysts also discourages it for wide-spread commercialization. Therefore, the transition to ‘green-hydrogen-economy’ demands approaches that lower the energy cost and material cost and simultaneously improve the hydrogen production rate.

A remarkable development: A team of researchers from IIT Bombay led by Prof. C. Subramaniam have come out with an innovative route that provides viable solutions to all these challenges. It involves electrolysis of water in the presence of an external magnetic field. In this method, the same system that produces one ml of hydrogen gas required 19% lower energy to produce three ml of hydrogen in the same time. This is achieved by synergistically coupling the electric and magnetic fields at the catalytic site.

The simple approach also provides the capability to retrofit any existing electrolyser (that uses electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen) with external magnets without drastic change in the design, leading to increased energy efficiency of H2 production.

Our pioneering project: NTPC has already awarded a project of ‘Standalone Fuel-Cell based Micro-grid with hydrogen production using electrolyser in NTPC Guest House at Simhadri (near Visakhapatnam)’. It is India’s first Green Hydrogen-based Energy Storage Project. It would be a precursor to large scale hydrogen energy storage projects and would be useful for studying and deploying multiple microgrids in various off grid and strategic locations of the country.

By P. K. Chatterjee (PK)

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