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Understanding the H2-ICE technology for sustainable heavy-duty vehicles

Recently, Reliance and Ashok Leyland unveiled a heavy-duty truck (19-35 Tonne) based on H2-ICE technology, i.e. an ICE engine powered by hydrogen. The vehicle was flagged off by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Bangalore at India Energy Week. Other prominent players working on this technology are Cummins and Toyota. We had a chat with Mr Abhilash Savidhan – Lead, Hydrogen Systems at Reliance Industries, to understand the relevance of this technology for heavy vehicles.

Is H2-ICE a new technology?

H2-ICE is not really new technology. Many people have tried it earlier however, the technology was not mature enough to handle the properties of hydrogen. Now there is a renewed interest in hydrogen for ICE engines.

For cost-conscious countries like India, shifting over to battery electric vehicles or fuel cell vehicles for the heavy-duty segment is impractical right now because of the huge costs involved. Plus, when it comes to heavy-duty vehicles, there is also a  payload sacrifice in battery electric vehicles because of the heavy weight of the batteries.

Hydrogen-ICE makes a lot of sense as we just have to modify the engine to use a much cleaner fuel. The emissions from H2-ICE vehicles are limited to nitrogen oxides and maybe very few elements of hydrocarbons because of engine oil.

What is the current level of technology readiness for H2-ICE vehicles?

Various companies are working on Hydrogen ICE vehicles, like Reliance & Ashok Leyland, Cummins, and Toyota, to name a few. The technology is ready; however, what needs to be ascertained is whether the vehicles are durable and reliable for the intended life of the vehicle, which is 10 lakh km or 10 years. 

Hydrogen is a very small molecule, and leakage is an issue that needs to be taken care of. It is important to make sure that the right sealing technologies are in place. Another issue is that hydrogen element attacks metals like steel. Its small molecule gets into the structure of the steel, which needs to be controlled. The selection of material is of critical importance. As far as performance is concerned, it’s possible to get diesel-like performance when it comes to power and acceleration. Long-term durability for the intended design life of the engines needs to be established, which various OEMs and technology providers across the world are working on and are in advanced stages of maturity levels for deploying into the markets.

What would be the additional infrastructure requirements for H2-ICE vehicles?

First, we should understand what the minimum distance covered by heavy-duty vehicles in a day, which is close to 500 kilometres for one filling. The infrastructure has to be brought in. We cannot escape that, but the dynamics for H2-ICE vehicles infrastructure are very different from EV charging, particularly for heavy vehicles where you cannot afford to have long downtimes. That is the advantage fuel cell electric vehicles or even hydrogen ICE vehicles have over the infrastructure requirements of the electric vehicle.

For long-distance buses or heavy-duty trucks, you need mega chargers for quick charging, which would be a huge stress on the grid. But when it comes to hydrogen infrastructure, we can have hydrogen production hubs in different parts of the country. From these hydrogen production hubs, hydrogen can be sent to the dispensing stations, either by using tube trailers or pipelines, where hydrogen can be compressed and dispensed. Plus, hydrogen can be 100% green once we start using photovoltaics and electrolyzers for the local production of green hydrogen in the production hubs.

In terms of the economics of operation, how will it compare with diesel vehicles?

That depends upon the pricing of hydrogen. The chairman of Reliance made an announcement for hydrogen in one of the AGMs – one decade, one dollar, one kilo. So over the next decade, the price can be brought down to $1 for one kilo. If that happens, I think the advantage over diesel will be huge – maybe 30% or 40% or more.

Any insights into purchase price comparison vis-a-vis diesel vehicles?

I think once we are into local mass production for all the components and child parts required for hydrogen, such as regulators, the valves etc., we can achieve cost parity with diesel. The big cost right now is the storage cost. For storage, carbon fibre tanks are used, which are all imported. If we can localise this, we can have huge cost savings to bring parity with diesel. 

What are your thoughts on LNG for heavy-duty vehicles? 

In my opinion, it makes more sense to go with hydrogen because LNG again has import dependencies.

Any estimate as to how long it will take for the H2-ICE technology to come on the road?

Most of the OEM or technology providers working on hydrogen ICE are in very advanced stages. I see the technology coming on the roads in maybe the next one or two years.

I also believe that India should graduate to fuel cell technology in the next 10 years. H2 ICE technology is going to be a bridge between the current diesel vehicles and the hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which will come up eventually. Fuel cell vehicles are slightly more efficient than hydrogen ICE. They should be adopted once the technology becomes affordable as we start manufacturing fuel cells and the balance of plant and child parts here in India.

The views expressed are personal.

Also Read: Hydrogen and derived e-fuels | The vaccine we need for climate change

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