Every time you top up the fuel in your car, you are ever so slightly depleting the world’s limited supply of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels meet much of the world’s energy needs, but there is a limit to how long they can continue to do so in the future. What’s even worse is that much of the supply of petroleum products is controlled by a few nations blessed with an abundance of oil and these nations can dictate both the petroleum supply and its price. Furthermore, depending on fossil fuels by a populous and exponentially developing nation like India further complicates already complex matters of foreign relations, cash outflow, and national security. In the near future, this might change thanks to some innovative ideas that might just solve India’s fuel and pollution problems in one go.
The new kid on the block
Recently, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and KPIT successfully ran trials of India’s first Hydrogen Fuel Cell (HFC) car running on an indigenously developed fuel cell at CSIR National Chemical Laboratory in Pune. The fuel cell is a low-temperature variant that operates at 65-75 degree centigrade, which is suitable for vehicular applications. The fuel cell uses extremely thin metal bipolar plates, thus reducing the overall weight of the battery by about two-thirds.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology uses chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen (from the air) to generate electrical energy, eliminating the use of fossil fuels. Additionally, the only by-product of this entire chemical process is water, thus cutting down the emission of harmful greenhouse gases along with other air pollutants. The technology, with further adoption and use, is poised to make the world a cleaner place with reduced air pollution levels.
The entire fuel cell stack and its associated components with the powertrain were retro-fitted in a standard sedan car. The test vehicle was fitted with a Type III commercial hydrogen tank. Its capacity is around 1.75 Kgs of H2 stored at about 350 bar pressure. The vehicle ran for approximately 250 Km at a moderate speed of 60-65 Km/hr.
Ravi Pandit, Chairman of KPIT, said, “The technology has a great future and owing to its indigenous development, it is expected to be more commercially viable than ever before.” Mr Pandit further described it as an important technology that will help India reduce pollution and reduce the country’s fossil fuel imports.
Similar advances by Indian startups
You may have seen EV cars like Mahindra e2o or Hyundai Kona scampering along the streets of your city. Although the electric vehicle segment in India has indeed come a long way, there are limitations when it comes to mass adoption. It’s also worth noting that India currently imports almost all its lithium-ion batteries that predominantly power these vehicles. The lack of extensive charging infrastructure, concerns over battery range, cost of batteries and the environmental impact of disposing lithium-ion batteries have proven to be real bottlenecks.
Addressing all these concerns is a Bengaluru-based nanotechnology company called Log 9 Materials. They have developed their own brand of Aluminium Fuel Cells (AFCs) that offer five times the range than an average lithium-ion battery, costs 30 percent less, is easier to use and doesn’t require the hassle of constantly recharging it. And what’s more fascinating is that this is not a concept on some drawing board, these batteries are undergoing trials.
What makes AFCs interesting is that once used up, the battery can be manually replaced by a new battery, instead of recharging it. And since this fuel cell is made from Aluminium, it can be easily recycled to produce new batteries. The company says replacing batteries will be as easy as sliding a cassette inside a tape recorder. Which makes more sense compared to hunting for charging stations, unlike conventional electric vehicles and waiting hours to get it charged. Currently, Log 9 Materials is working with the government to ensure that the batteries will be made available at existing fuel stations. Presently, the company promises 1000 Km range from a single battery compared to the 250 kms offered by its Lithium-ion counterparts. The company is working to extend the range to 2,000 km in a few years.
Another company that’s working on the same front albeit with a different approach is Grinntech based out of Chennai. This indigenous company caters to the application-specific needs of the Indian EV industry. The company has also developed patented technology in partnership with Qualcomm for its electric battery, which the company claims to be 7.5 times more capable than average electric batteries.
Other companies that are working to redefine the fuel cell energy landscape of India are:
- Ion Energy, Mumbai (ionenergy.co)
- Lohum Cleantech, Delhi (lohum.com)
- Gegadyne Energy, Mumbai (gegadyne.com)
- Ziptrax Cleantech, Delhi (ziptrax.in)
- Inverted, Delhi (inverted.in)
No more pollution
One of the most important benefits of a fuel cell automobile is that it’s non-polluting. A hydrogen fuel cell produces two byproducts — heat and water, while a battery-powered vehicle produces just heat. If every vehicle on the road were powered by a fuel cell, the familiar clouds of toxic smog that hang over many cities would soon disappear.
That said, the existing pollution isn’t going to go away soon. Heavy particles remain in the atmosphere for weeks, if not months; and the comparatively lighter carbon dioxide gas remains for a considerably longer time. Which means that even if all sources of carbon emissions were eliminated today, it could still take decades for atmospheric carbon levels to return to normal. Furthermore, automobiles are only one source of carbon emissions. Others, such as coal-burning power plants, would also have to be greatly curtailed in order to prevent global warming. But, EVs and Fuel Cells are just the start. Let’s hope that these technologies will be fast-tracked and adopted extensively in the coming years.
No more foreign dependency
More than 80% of the automotive fuel used in our country is imported from other nations. This has a significant impact on the economy. Nearly two-thirds of this imported oil is used for transportation and because so much oil comes from outside of India, changes in prices and supply are largely out of our control. Much of the oil comes from politically unstable regions in the Middle East and a capitalist country like the USA. These two dominant names in global oil trade have their own set of agendas.
Another problem with our dependency on oil is that rising oil prices influence our entire economy. An increase in oil prices means more money is required to produce the same product which ultimately increases its final selling price in the market. This is something we could see change in the upcoming decade if alternative renewable energy sources are made available extensively.
Will fuel cell energy be cheaper than oil?
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the current generation fuel cells produce electricity at a price of approximately $225 per kilowatt. Unfortunately, prices will need to drop to about $30 per kilowatt before hydrogen and battery fuel cells are competitive with gasoline as a fuel. It’s predicted that by the end of this decade, widespread adoption of fuel cell vehicles will ensure that the cost of renewable energy sources will be as much as 50 percent lower than the prices of oil.
So, can fuel cell vehicles help break our oil addiction? Yes, but it’ll take time. They will help reduce our oil dependence, but it will probably be decades before enough vehicles are in everyday use to make a significant difference in oil imports. In the long run, however, the impact of fuel cells could be considerable.
Converting from internal combustion engines to non-polluting fuel sources like hydrogen and AFCs will be important for eliminating the problems of the 21st century. But with more than 250 million cars on the road in India today, it’s unlikely that fuel cell cars will make enough of a difference soon to produce significant environmental improvements. We already know that battery-powered vehicles are expensive, and it’s estimated that the early hydrogen cell vehicles are going to be super expensive as well. This will put them out of the reach of ordinary consumers. Also, the infrastructure needed to make these cars practical, including refuelling or charging stations, will take time to be widely available.
India, however, is definitely on the right track. The Government of India recently threw the electric car-making race wide open by announcing almost Rs 34,000 crores in incentives for companies to set up advanced battery manufacturing facilities in India. Some experts believe that improvements in renewable energy infrastructure and storage will lead to a sustainable non-fossil fuel economy in 15 to 20 years. If India Inc manages to achieve that, it will not just be a game-changer for our country, but for the entire world.