Dr Dhiraj K Mahajan from IIT Ropar answers the FAQs on Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology
What is a Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle?
While the term Electric Vehicles (EV) is often used in the context of a BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle), there is another promising EV technology that may hold the key to sustainable clean transportation in the long term – Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles or FCEVs.
Hydrogen FCEVs are propelled by an electric motor, like a Battery Electric Vehicle. However, in place of a rechargeable battery pack, an FCEV stores pure hydrogen gas in a tank. A fuel cell combines this hydrogen with oxygen from the air to produce electricity to run the motor. The power of an FCEV is defined by the size of the fuel cell stack and amount of energy that can be stored is defined by the size of hydrogen fuel tank.
What is the current state of Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology in the world?
Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology is now a well-developed commercial technology for both stationary (e.g. telecom towers, data centres) as well as mobile applications (e.g. FCEVs, drones). From the environment point of view, it provides a more sustainable solution compared to battery-based solutions. Several developed countries like Japan, Germany, USA, Netherlands etc. are actively pursuing R&D to expand the reach of this technology to new sectors such as aviation, railways etc.
What is the current state of Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology in India?
In India, several PSUs (IOCL, BHEL, NCL-Pune), public funded research labs (CECRI – Tamil Nadu , CFCT – Hyderabad), academic institutes (IITs) and few industry players like Reliance are actively pursuing R&D in Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology. Fuel Cells stacks of up to few KWs power have been developed in the country that can be used to power light to medium duty applications e.g. golf karts and fork lifts. However, a commercially available fuel cell stack meeting the state-of-the-art mobility applications standards as used in FCEVs like Toyota Mirai or Honda Clarity is yet to be developed.
From the government side – in July 2020, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways issued a draft notification proposing an amendment to the CMVR, 1989 for the inclusion of the standards for safety evaluation of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles of M and N category. In April 2020, NTPC also invited EOI for Hydrogen fuel cell buses and car project for Delhi and Leh.
The large scale penetration and adoption of Hydrogen based FC technology has a dependency on government efforts towards establishing necessary infrastructure i.e. hydrogen filling stations. There have to be enough filling stations for all stakeholders to see the value in investing in an FCEV. In a way, hydrogen mapping in India will be similar to CNG as it will be highly dependent on the availability of public infrastructure.
However, private entities like big warehouses can generate sufficient amount of hydrogen through commercially availably electrolysis systems to run their forklifts on a daily basis. Modular solutions for hydrogen production and storage using solar energy can be implemented to facilitate clean energy usage in warehousing industry.
What are the pros of fuel cell technology over battery-operated vehicles?
Fuel cell technology based on the quantity of stored hydrogen offers longer drive range and can be used to power heavier electric vehicles compared to battery powered vehicles for which the battery weight can become a bottleneck. In addition, FCEVs have longer estimated lifetime compared to BEVs. The time taken for refuelling the FCEVs is upto 3 to 5 minutes that is a big win over longer charging times of BEVs. Due to minimal downtime and possibility of powering heavier vehicles, fuel cell technology provides an important clean energy alternative for powering vehicles like trucks, transport buses, trains and industrial vehicles which is not possible through battery based technology.
Most importantly, the environmental signature of an FCEV is much less than a BEV. In my opinion, the BEVs are a stepping stone to move towards a cleaner e-mobility solution that will be provided by fuel cell technology.
What are the cons of fuel cell tech over battery-operated vehicles?
FCEVs offer lower efficiency for short drive ranges and hydrogen refuelling is dependent on hydrogen specific infrastructure (hydrogen filling stations) to be built/enabled by the government. BEVs on the other hand can be charged at home.
We have a bottleneck in becoming self-sufficient in BEVs due to unavailability of raw materials for cells and cell technology. How does hydrogen stand in terms of resource availability and production in the country?
Hydrogen indeed provides a promise of self-reliant India given that hydrogen production technologies such as catalytic steam Reforming of natural gas, naphtha and other hydrocarbons, partial oxidation of hydrocarbons, gasification of coal and electrolysis of water are well-developed technologies in which India already has the expertise. For this reason, FCEVs are well placed compared to BEVs with respect to resource availability and production in the country.
Other than reforming, there is another process for obtaining hydrogen called Electrolysis that uses electric current to break the water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Reforming is cheaper but leads to high CO2 emission. Green hydrogen production technologies in which hydrogen is generated through renewables sources is an active area of research in the country. For controlling its production cost, Hydrogen can also be produced from waste materials such as bio-mass and plastic waste. Once such technologies becoming mainstream, they will provide the best case scenario for hydrogen to emerge as cleanest form of energy source for all kinds of applications discussed above.
As stated above, there are many institutions working on fuel cell technology in the country. As of now, we are getting some stuff like membrane from outside but eventually this technology can be completely localised. Institutes like Centre For Fuel Cell Technology (CFCT) are working towards indigenisation of fuel cell components.
What all category of vehicles are suitable to run on hydrogen? So far we have seen cars and buses, but no 2Ws or 3Ws that make the lifeline of Indian intra-city transport.
BEVs are more efficient for low range and light weight vehicles. But as we go for long range, the battery weight will increase tremendously. For long range and heavy vehicles that need more power, FCEVs are way more efficient as power density of fuel cells is much better than BEVs.
As of now, hydrogen is available (for retail) at nearly INR 700-800 per Kg. The moment the price is halved, fuel cell can become a competitive technology for lighter vehicles as well.
Cover Image: Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle Video
About the Author
Dr Dhiraj Kumar Mahajan is Associate Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology, Ropar. The author is actively associated with fuel cell research efforts in the country. Views are personal.