India: Hydrogen Economy

K Venkataramanan,
Chief Executive Officer & Managing Director
Larsen & Toubro
Hydrogen Economy is undoubtedly an effective strategy to reduce the increasing amount of carbon in the atmosphere due to the usage of hydrocarbon fuels. The growth of manufacturing sector in developing countries has increased the demand of hydrocarbon fuels manifolds. K Venkataramanan, Managing Director & CEO, Larsen & Toubro, provides an insight into the Hydrogen Economy.

The supply of clean fuels to meet the future energy requirements through eco -friendly route is a major global challenge now-a-days. The efforts are in progress to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and promoting widespread use of cleaner fuels such as hydrogen. This is driving the research and development towards sustainable technologies for hydrogen production, storage, distribution and utilisation. Hydrogen Economy is a proposed system of delivering energy using hydrogen produced from renewable energy sources with the advantages of a reduced dependency on oil and gas and reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions eg, global CO2 emission for 2011 were of order ~31.6 Gigatonne (Gt) with India accounting nearly 8.7 percent of total emission.

At present, we have already surpassed the most environmentally-ambitious interpretation of the Copenhagen Accord ie, energy-related CO2 emissions targeted to reach 31.9 Gt in 2020. This means that to limit energy -related emissions to 21.7 Gt in 2035, as targeted in the Copenhagen Accord, dramatic emissions cuts are needed at present and further more vigorous efforts after 2020. This makes the transition to a Hydrogen Economy extremely important in the coming decade.

National Hydrogen Energy Road Map (NHERMP) prepared by Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has addressed various aspects of this issue. The key objective of the programme is to identify the routes, which will lead to a gradual induction of hydrogen energy in the country, speeding up the commercialisation and facilitate creation of hydrogen energy infrastructure in the country. Accordingly, it is projected that around one million hydrogen fuelled vehicles would be on Indian roads and 1,000 MW aggregate hydrogen based power generating capacity be set up in the country, by 2020. A schematic representation of transition to hydrogen economy is illustrated in figure 1on the previous page.

Hydrogen Production Routes
The majority of hydrogen produced is utilised in petroleum refineries, fertiliser, chemical and food industries. On a broad scale, majority of the hydrogen is produced from Natural Gas, with other feed stocks being Oil, Coal and Water (typically 48 per cent from natural gas, 30 percent from oil, 18 percent from coal and 4 percent from water electrolysis).

The routes practiced for hydrogen production;
  • Steam reforming of feedstock such as methane, natural gas or naphtha
  • Partial oxidation of heavy petroleum residues
  • Gasification of feedstock such as petroleum coke, coal, biomass
  • Electrolysis of water
  • Thermochemical water splitting
  • Photo catalytic water splitting
  • Photo biological water splitting
A typical hydrogen production cost with respect to gasoline base price is indicated in figure 2.

From these, only the first three routes are most economical and are commercially proven technologies whereas the other environmental benign processes using renewable energy are at nascent or developmental stage. However, there have been developments in recent years. A few indigenous achievements in this area include, (1) Hydrogen production by non -thermal plasma reformation technique (CIMFR-Dhanbad, IICT- Hyderabad), (2) Prototype demonstration of wind hydrogen based stand-alone electrical generator (ERDA-Vadodara), (3) Liquid fuels from biomass gasification (IISc- Bengaluru), (4) Semiconductor nano-composites for photo-catalytic water splitting into hydrogen and oxygen (IICT-Hyderabad).

In order to fill up the immediate demand and supply gap in line with NHERMP, centralised large-scale hydrogen generation units utilising coal or natural gas are required. These units will be in operation until hydrogen can be obtained economically from the above renewable sources. Further, the technology developments also should focus on disposal of huge quantities of carbon dioxide, a by-product for these centralised hydrogen generation units . Parallel quantification and utilisation of by-product hydrogen from nearby chemical industry or onsite hydrogen generators could be an attractive option for power generation and transport applications.

Hydrogen Storage
Typically hydrogen gas is stored in steel ASME-certified vessels or composite pressurised vessels. Several international organisations are working on development of high pressure hydrogen (350-700 bar) storage systems. Increasing the gas pressure improves the energy density by volume shrinkage however the vessel thickness (or weight) increases owing to high pressure requirement.

Further, hydrogen can also be stored as liquid hydrogen at cryogenic conditions however, this technology is energy intensive. In India, liquid hydrogen plant has been installed near Thiruvananthapuram by ISRO for space programme. There is an urgent need for linking the technology gap of utilising liquid hydrogen for vehicular transport and power generation purpose.

Alternatively, hydrogen can also be stored and transported in the form of chemical hydrides. For transport applications, hydrides with 6 to 9 wt% storage capacity, and cycle life of greater than 1500 are required.

Further, indigenous R & D should be strengthened for novel hydrogen storage materials and methodologies such as carbon nanotubes, sodium alanates, zeolites, glass microspheres, underground caverns, salt domes and depleted oil and gas fields.

The storage of large quantities of hydrogen underground can also function as a grid energy storage which is essential for running hydrogen economy.

Hydrogen Transportation and Delivery Hydrogen transport and its distribution to the end users in economical and efficient manner is a key success factor for hydrogen economy. The most common method is road or rail transportation of hydrogen in pressurised tanks or cylinders (pressures ranging from 150 to 400 bars). Generally, compact forms of hydrogen storage are more economical to transport than diffused forms. Transporting liquid hydrogen is far more efficient than a high-pressure gas, particularly where large quantities are required. Pipeline transport of hydrogen through existing natural gas pipelines could be an efficient mode for transporting energy over long distance. However, suitability of these pipeline materials needs to be assessed followed by periodic inspections of such pipelines for embrittlement.

Hydrogen Safety, Codes and Standards
Indian industries are using hydrogen over several decades and over this period safety codes and regulations for handling of hydrogen have been developed. This typically includes, (1) BIS specification for compressed gaseous hydrogen storage (IS - 1090), (2) inception and administration static and mobile pressure vessel (unfired) rules, 1981 and the gas cylinder rules, 1981 by department of explosives, (3) formulation and implementation of a series of self-regulatory measures such as OISD guidelines for enhancing the safety in oil and gas industry in India. However, for hydrogen applications in power generation, mobile and transport sector, a major revision in existing codes and standards is needed. Educational and training programmes are needed to create awareness about safety aspects of hydrogen energy in different applications.

Fuel Cells
Fuel cells are a promising option for hydrogen applications both for transportation and power generation. Fuel cells require relatively pure hydrogen, free from contaminants such as sulphur and carbon compounds etc. Indigenous research should target development of various components for electrodes, catalysts (replacing expensive noble metals), membranes and separators, replacement expensive noble metals, used as catalysts, reliability improvements for fuel cells. Safety regulations, codes and standards should also be a part of fuel cell development programmes.

Role of Indian EPC Industry for Success of Hydrogen Economy
A model indicating the hydrogen energy management programme for India is shown in figure 3. It clearly mentions the role of Indian industry in integrating the R & D projects. This may be applicable for EPC industry too .

Indian EPC industries have successfully installed several large scale hydrogen generation units for public and private sector refineries. For this purpose, EPC companies, like Larsen and Toubro, have formed alliances with leading technology for licensing hydrogen production processes.

EPC industries have demonstrated robust linkage amongst licenser, vendors and public sector companies for cost competitive and on time installation of hydrogen units on turnkey basis. Not only this, Larsen and Toubro has also built world class manufacturing facilities for critical equipment in hydrogen services. The Indian EPC industry is looking towards Hydrogen Economy in much broader perspective such as;
  • Active involvement in framing policies and legislation for hydrogen economy including validation of safety regulations, codes and standards.
  • Tie-up with national and international R & D firms for hydrogen research .
  • Involvement as stakeholder for completing large scale hydrogen projects through public-private partnership.
From a long term perspective, hydrogen offers great potential as an alternate energy technology, but still needs affordable production routes from renewable sources and continued investment in hydrogen infrastructure. Through a collaborative and an integrated approach, it would be possible to bring about the phased induction of viable hydrogen economy in the country.

(The article was published in Jan 2013 issue of CEW)