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What is Hydrogen Economy? How India is planning to run cars on hydrogen?

What is Hydrogen Economy? How India is planning to run cars on hydrogen?


  • GS 3 II Science & Technology II Energy II Gas-based Energy

Why in the news?

Traditionally a slow mover in frontier electric vehicle (EV) technologies, India has made an uncharacteristically early entry in the race to tap the energy potential of the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen.


  • Less than four months after the United States Department of energy announced an investment up to $100 million in hydrogen production and fuel cell technologies research and development, India has announced a National Hydrogen Mission.
  • The proposal in the Budget will be followed up with a mission draft over the next couple of months — a roadmap for using hydrogen as an energy source.
  • While proposed end-use sectors include steel and chemicals, the major industry that hydrogen has the potential of transforming is transportation that contributes a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, and where hydrogen is being seen as a direct replacement of fossil fuels, with specific advantages over traditional EVs.

Pilot projects already underway:

  • In October, Delhi became the first Indian city to operate buses running on hydrogen spiked compressed natural gas (H-CNG) in a six-month pilot project.
  • The buses will run on a new technology patented by Indian Oil Corp for producing H-CNG — 18% hydrogen in CNG.
  • Power major NTPC Ltd is operating a pilot to run 10 hydrogen fuel cell-based electric buses and fuel cell electric cars in Leh and Delhi.
  • IOC is also planning to set up a dedicated unit to produce hydrogen to run buses at its R&D centre in Faridabad.

What is Hydrogen Economy?

  • Hydrogen is a promising energy carrier and has the potential to address various energy sector challenges and technically from the application point of view, substituting conventional fuels. Its use can reduce CO2 related emissions significantly and decarbonise the entire value chain, enabling reduced emissions and climate change threats.
  • Hydrogen can also bridge the gap between supply and demand, in both a centralized or decentralized manner, thereby enhancing the overall energy system flexibility. Hydrogen can be used to meet both seasonal and daily supply-demand mismatch in the case of renewables. In rural India, where there is no access to the grid, the use of hydrogen can provide energy services.
  • In 1970, the term ‘hydrogen economy’ was coined by John Bockris. He mentioned that a hydrogen economy can replace the current hydrocarbon-based economy, leading to a cleaner environment.
  • The hydrogen economy is an envisioned future where hydrogen is used as fuel for vehicles, energy storage and long-distance transport of energy. The different pathways to use hydrogen economy includes hydrogen production, storage, transport and utilization.
  • At present, the current global demand for hydrogen is 70 million metric tons, most of which is being produced from fossil fuels— 76% from natural gas and 23% from coal and remaining from the electrolysis of water– consumes 6% of the global natural gas and 2% of the global coal. This results in CO2 emissions of around 830Mt/year out of which only 130Mt/year is being captured and used in the fertilizer industry.

Why hydrogen?

  • Hydrogen’s potential as a clean fuel source has a long history.
  • In 1937, the German passenger airship LZ129 Hindenburg used hydrogen fuel to fly across the Atlantic, only to explode while docking at Naval Air Station Lakehurst in New Jersey, killing 36 people.
  • In the late 1960s, hydrogen fuel cells helped power NASA’s Apollo missions to the moon. After the oil price shocks of the 1970s, the possibility of hydrogen replacing fossil fuels came to be considered seriously.
  • Three carmakers — Japan’s Honda and Toyota, and South Korea’s Hyundai — have since moved decisively in the direction of commercialising the technology, albeit on a limited scale.

Types of Hydrogen:

  • The most common element in nature is not found freely.
  • Hydrogen exists only combined with other elements, and has to be extracted from naturally occurring compounds like water (2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom).
  • Although hydrogen is a clean molecule, the process of extracting it is energy-intensive.
  • The sources and processes by which hydrogen is derived, are categorised by colour tabs.
  • Hydrogen produced from fossil fuels is called grey hydrogen; this constitutes the bulk of the hydrogen produced today.
  • Hydrogen generated from fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage options is called blue hydrogen;
  • Hydrogen generated entirely from renewable power sources is called green hydrogen.

The case for green hydrogen:

  • Green hydrogen has specific advantages. One, it is a clean burning molecule, which can decarbonise a range of sectors including iron and steel, chemicals, and transportation.
  • Two, renewable energy that cannot be stored or used by the grid can be channelled to produce hydrogen. This is what the government’s Hydrogen Energy Mission, to be launched in 2021-22, aims for.
  • India’s electricity grid is predominantly coal-based and will continue to be so, thus negating collateral benefits from a large-scale EV push, as coal will have to be burnt to generate the electricity that will power these vehicles.
  • In several countries that have gone in for an EV push, much of the electricity is generated from renewables — in Norway for example, it is 99% from hydroelectric power.
  • Experts believe hydrogen vehicles can be especially effective in long-haul trucking and other hard-to-electrify sectors such as shipping and long-haul air travel.
  • Using heavy batteries in these applications would be counterproductive, especially for countries such as India, where the electricity grid is predominantly coal-fired.

How hydrogen fuel cells work?

  • Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not a source of energy.
  • Hydrogen fuel must be transformed into electricity by a device called a fuel cell stack before it can be used to power a car or truck.
  • A fuel cell converts chemical energy into electrical energy using oxidising agents through an oxidation-reduction reaction.
  • Fuel cell-based vehicles most commonly combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity to power the electric motor on board.
  • Since fuel cell vehicles use electricity to run, they are considered electric vehicles.
  • Inside each individual fuel cell, hydrogen is drawn from an onboard pressurised tank and made to react with a catalyst, usually made from platinum.

  • As the hydrogen passes through the catalyst, it is stripped of its electrons, which are forced to move along an external circuit, producing an electrical current.
  • This current is used by the electric motor to power the vehicle, with the only byproduct being water vapour.
  • Hydrogen fuel cell cars have a near zero carbon footprint.
  • Hydrogen is about two to three times as efficient as burning petrol, because an electric chemical reaction is much more efficient than combustion.

Potential of clean hydrogen industry in reducing greenhouse gas emissions:

  • The only by-product or emission that results from the usage of hydrogen fuel is water — making the fuel 100 per cent clean.
  • Hydrogen is considered an alternative fuel. It is due to its ability to power fuel cells in zero-emission electric vehicles, its potential for domestic production, and the fuel cell’s potential for high efficiency.
  • In fact, a fuel cell coupled with an electric motor is two to three times more efficient than an internal combustion engine running on gasoline.
  • Hydrogen can also serve as fuel for internal combustion engines.

The Problems:

  • Despite its promise, hydrogen technology is yet to be scaled up.
  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk has called fuel cell technology “mind- bogglingly stupid”.
  • Globally, there were under 25,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road at the end of 2020; by comparison, the number of electric cars was 8 million.
  • A big barrier to the adoption of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles has been a lack of fuelling station infrastructure — fuel cell cars refuel in a similar way to conventional cars, but can’t use the same station.
  • There are fewer than 500 operational hydrogen stations in the world today, mostly in Europe, followed by Japan and South Korea. There are some in North America.
  • Safety is seen as a concern. Hydrogen is pressurised and stored in a cryogenic tank, from there it is fed to a lower-pressure cell and put through an electro-chemical reaction to generate

What can be done for future?

  • Function of Governments and OEMs: Governments around the world and leading Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEMs) should move forward to invest in this sector as their investment will significantly reduce such high production and maintenance costs for these vehicles.
  • India’s Commitments: India must stick to its pledge to the Paris Climate Agreement and its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) Goals and ensure zero emissions for its mobility in the future.
  • Welcoming the latest technologies: HFCVs are the best choice in the case of heavy duty vehicles such as trucks and tractors, which are manufactured in large numbers in India, while electric vehicles solve a large part of the emission problems. The software should therefore be greeted with embracing hands.
  • Hydrogen Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles: India is the leading manufacturer of hydrogen internal combustion engine vehicles, which could be used as an alternative to high-cost hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as an alternative technology.


Currently HFC is still in its infancy stage however we can’t depend on conventional fuel for future, hence we should work on alternatives like HFC, electric, solar energy to meet energy requirements for transportation purposes. Hydrogen Fuel Cell has a big role to play in mobility and zero emission technology in future.

Mains oriented question:

India has a huge biomass reserve which is either burnt of simply goes waste. How it can be utilize in effective way for future? (200 words)