Indian hydrogen era happening at pace

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Some 230 years after the first hydrogen was produced, the integrated, capable and swift-moving ecosystem required to create a functioning industry in India is still in the most nascent of stages. Hydrogen has immense potential as a pivotal tool in achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050, and by all accounts everyone from the government to industry is pushing forward as fast as they can. But the reality on the ground is that there is quite a ways to go before India is producing hydrogen for its own use and, as has been suggested repeatedly throughout India Energy Week, becomes an exporter to regions who cannot meet their own needs.

That was the message delivered by industry experts and academics gathered at Plenary Hall on Day 3 of the event for The next energy frontier: Hydrogen’s role in tomorrow’s energy mix, a panel devoted to what is happening in India. Panel moderator Arun Unni, Partner, Head of Sustainability APAC and India Kearney, summed the situation up succinctly in his opening statements: “We need molecules,” he said. “It’s one of those important vectors that can help India become an exporting country, not just an importing company.”

Alberto Litta Modignani, Hydrogen VP at NextChem Tech, is a Belgian nuclear engineer by training. He cited the potential for India to become a hub for hydrogen export, based on the sheer size along with its industrial heritage. There is, however, a sizable gap between intention and fulfillment. “Whether it is blue or green,” he said, “It’s not there.” One only has to look at how the development of a hydrogen economy is going elsewhere to see that there is currently no easy path forward – for anyone. “There are also other countries [and places] like South America that were very promising, but still they are almost no where in terms of development,” he said.

Alok Sharma is Director (R&D) at IndianOil Corporation Ltd, sitting at the center of high technology and doing cutting edge work in hydrogen. He said there are still very basic hurdles to overcome at this point, including a pressing dearth of hydrogen electrolysers, which are the electrochemical devices that do the actual work of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. The situation is such an issue that Indian Oil Corporation has committed to setting up thousands of tonnes per annum of its own electrolysers to meet demand. As Unni aptly pointed out, the electrolysers are just one signal of the wider issue: “We need the building blocks first, so we can solve one problem after the other.”

L N Lalwani, Executive Director (Head - Technical & Projects) at Torrent Power, has four decades working on multiple solar and wind tunnel projects, and is leading the hydrogen charge in India and the Middle East. He said research is also needed to reduce the cost of electrolysers, which currently account for 25 to 30 percent of project pricing because they contain rare and expensive elements like radium and titanium. The industry needs to foster a new generation brain trust at the university level, storage and compression are also issues, and Lalwani pointed out that work needs to be done on actual hydrogen-creation process itself.

When electrons enter the water, oxygen is formed at the anode and hydrogen at the cathode; Lalwani said there is still a risk of explosion on the anode side. While a major acceleration is required across the board, urgent attention needs to be paid to research and development, all of which will ultimately bring down costs, said Atul Choudhari, Chief Technology Officer, Tata Consulting Engineers Limited. And then there is the question of how to ship all that green hydrogen, once the other hurdles have been overcome. “Long-term, we obviously need to look at the pipeline network across the country,” said Choudhari. “That will make the hydrogen industry faster and adoption quicker.”

In the end, while the government is working on policies, subsidies, pilot projects and programs to ease the transition, the industry must solve these problems to be self-sustaining. As RK Malhotra, Director & Co-Founder Carbon U Turn Pvt. Ltd. and a professor FIPI puts it: “The government cannot be supporting and subsidizing every step in the value chain.”

While it might seem like the challenges are insurmountable and the system is chaotic, what’s happening is an all-systems, real-time scale up with the collective goal of ongoing energy independence and commercial success. That’s why now it’s important that all of the pilot projects launched are connected and share what they are doing and learning, said Lalwani, which will work on a macro level over time to evolve the technology up to where it needs to be. “We are working on the tech, we are improving the tech; we are scaling up and we are looking at the market,” he said. “All these things are happening at the same time, which is a little bit challenging.”

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