Changing lanes in the EV race: Amid lithium headwinds, India targets H fuel cells

The first hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) technology bus developed in India was unveiled at the end of August. ) and Pune-based automotive software company KPIT Ltd. This is seen as something of a milestone, especially given the government’s strong policy push on electric vehicles (EVs) which comes amid a struggle to make inroads into the global lithium value chain (Li ). , prompting a rethink about the need to diversify the country’s reliance on Li-ion batteries in the overall electric vehicle mix.

New Delhi’s electric mobility is largely focused on battery electric vehicles (BEVs) as a key platform to replace internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, with Li-ion seen as the battery option most viable so far.

The problem: India’s Li-ion battery demand is expected to grow at a CAGR of over 30% by volume through 2030, which would translate to over 50,000 tonnes of lithium requirements for the country to only manufactures batteries for electric vehicles.

With over 90% of global Li production concentrated in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, alongside Australia and China, and other key inputs such as cobalt and nickel mined in Congo and Indonesia, India is expected to be almost entirely dependent on imports from a small group of countries to meet its demand. As other Li-ion options are explored, viability remains a key factor. A renewed interest in hydrogen as a mobility option fits into this context.

Traditionally a slow mover in EV technologies, India has made an unusually early push in the race to harness the energy potential of the most abundant element in the universe: hydrogen. This includes a national hydrogen mission and a roadmap for using hydrogen as an energy source. And while proposed end-use sectors include steel and chemicals, the main industry that hydrogen has the potential to transform is transportation – which contributes a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. , and where hydrogen is seen as a direct replacement for fossil fuels, with specific advantages over traditional electric vehicles. As a supporting regulatory framework, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways had, at the end of 2020, issued a notification proposing amendments to the Central Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989 to include safety assessment standards for HFC-based vehicles.

Hydrogen as a fuel source

Although the potential of hydrogen as a clean fuel source dates back nearly 150 years, it was not until the oil price shocks of the 1970s that the possibility of this element replacing fossil fuels was seriously considered. Three automakers – Japan’s Honda and Toyota, and South Korea’s Hyundai – have since moved aggressively to commercialize the technology, albeit on a limited scale. The most common element in nature, however, is not found freely. Hydrogen only exists when combined with other elements and must be extracted from natural compounds like water (which is a combination of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom).

Although hydrogen is a clean molecule, its extraction process is energy intensive. The two most common methods for producing hydrogen are natural gas reforming and electrolysis.

Thermal hydrogen production processes typically involve steam reforming, a process in which steam reacts with a hydrocarbon to produce hydrogen and accounts for approximately 95% of all hydrogen produced. In electrolysis, water is split into oxygen and hydrogen by a process called electrolysis. The electrolytic processes take place in an electrolyzer, which works more like a fuel cell in reverse – instead of using the energy of a hydrogen molecule like a fuel cell does, an electrolyzer creates hydrogen by splitting water molecules.

How hydrogen fuel cells work

Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. Hydrogen fuel must therefore be transformed into electricity by a device called a fuel cell before it can be used to power a car or truck. A fuel cell converts chemical energy into electrical energy using oxidizing agents through an oxidation-reduction reaction. Fuel cell vehicles most often combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity to power the on-board electric motor. Since fuel cell vehicles use electricity to operate, they are considered electric vehicles.

Inside each fuel cell, hydrogen is drawn from an on-board pressure tank and reacted with a catalyst, usually platinum. When the hydrogen passes through the catalyst, it is stripped of its electrons, which are forced to move along an external circuit, producing an electric current. This current is used by the electric motor to propel the vehicle, the only by-product being water vapor. Hydrogen fuel cell cars have a near-zero carbon footprint. Hydrogen is about 2-3 times more efficient than burning gasoline, because an electrical chemical reaction is much more efficient than burning.

The new HFC technology bus prototype unveiled in Pune is seen as a major breakthrough, with the fuel cell developed locally at CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory, Pune. The fuel cell used here is a so-called “low temperature proton exchange membrane type fuel cell” which operates at 65-75°C, which is suitable for vehicular applications. Polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, also called proton exchange membrane fuel cells, use a proton-conducting polymer membrane as the electrolyte while hydrogen is used as the fuel. These cells operate at relatively low temperatures and are the best candidates for powering automobiles.

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The hydrogen problem

Globally, there were less than 25,000 HFC vehicles on the roads at the end of 2020; for comparison, the number of electric cars was 8 million. A major barrier to adoption of HFC vehicles has been the lack of fueling station infrastructure – although fuel cell cars refuel in the same way as conventional cars, they cannot use the same station . There were less than 500 operational hydrogen stations worldwide in 2021, mostly in Europe, followed by Japan, South Korea and some in North America.

Safety is flagged as a concern. The hydrogen is pressurized and stored in a cryogenic tank, from where it is routed to a low pressure cell and subjected to an electrochemical reaction to generate electricity. Hyundai and Toyota claim that the safety and reliability of hydrogen tanks are on a similar level to standard CNG engines. Scaling the technology and reaching critical mass remains the big challenge. More vehicles on the road and more supporting infrastructure can reduce costs. India’s proposed mission is seen as a step in that direction.

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