The energy sector has been witnessing a crisis for quite some time. While the fossil fuel is blamed for contributing significantly in environmental pollution, the rising cost of motor fuels such as petrol and diesel are hitting the transport sector as well as the overall economy pretty hard.
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In such a crisis scenario for the energy sector, when environmental degradation and climate change too are putting pressure on the industry, there is a search for cleaner and greener fuel alternatives. While electric vehicles seem to be an option to mitigate the tailpipe emission, there are concerns about how the electricity is produced.
The majority of the electricity produced in India comes from thermal power, by burning coal. This means, while the tailpipe emission is reduced, the lithium-ion batteries or lead-acid batteries are running on electricity that is produced in a massive carbon-emitting process.
In such a scenario, hydrogen fuel could be a cost-efficient, effective and long-term alternative to fossil fuels like petrol or diesel. While hydrogen fuel cell technology is one segment, on which several automakers around the world are working for quite some time, in India, hydrogen fuel cell technology is still in the prenatal stage.
Countries like the US, Germany, South Korea, China and Japan have already deployed a fleet of hydrogen-fuelled commercial vehicles. The French government too aims to use hydrogen fuel cell technology in transportation. However, the development of hydrogen fuel cell technology in India is not sufficient, despite the country being one of the major automobile markets in the world.
While the Indian government has been promoting hydrogen fuel cell technology as part of its push for greener and cleaner automobile fuel solutions. In the Union Budget 2021, alternative fuel options received a special mention by the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman underlining the fact that green energy and future fuels are the way ahead to attain self-sufficiency for the country's energy requirements. Emphasising that, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too said that India needs to be industry-ready for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
However, despite hydrogen being a promising alternative fuel solution, there are several challenges for India to adopt this technology, at least in near future.
Lack of infrastructure
Infrastructure remains a major hindrance ahead of the growth of hydrogen fuel cell technology powered vehicles. In India, the hydrogen fuel cell dispensing fuel stations are only a few, which way lower than adequate to encourage the automakers and vehicle buyers to adopt hydrogen fuel cell technology powered vehicles.
Higher safety concern
Safety is a major concern around hydrogen fuel cell technology. Hydrogen fuel is highly flammable, even higher than fossil fuels like petrol or diesel. It is not necessary to store the fuel in hydrogen form only, but other hydrogen-generating sources like methane, propane, alcohols, or even regular gasoline too can create gaseous hydrogen in the vehicle itself. However, all of these come with respective flammability issues and the hydrogen itself is highly flammable as well, which brings the safety concern.
The possibility of electric shock too is another safety concern around the hydrogen fuel cell technology. This system electro-chemically combines hydrogen with oxygen, both of which are flammable and generates electrical energy to power the vehicle and emits water instead of toxic tailpipe gases. Some hydrogen fuel cell motors run on voltages exceeding 350 volts. Considering the fact that anything greater than 50 volts can stop a human heart, there are great risks of electric shock from a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain.
Unlike the gas or oil powertrains, the hydrogen fuel cell powertrains are not very robust, because of their delicate and intricate system. These powertrain technologies demand highly sensitive surroundings and environment, as very high or very low temperatures can result in the failure of the system. In a country like India, where it is too hot and humid at places during summer and extreme cold in the northern part of the country during summer, the chances of breakdown for these powertrains are pretty high.
Hydrogen fuel cell powertrains are way much expensive than conventional internal combustion engine technologies. These powertrains use extremely rare earth metal like platinum, which results in the manufacturing of hydrogen fuel cells a lot more expensive than drilling transporting and refining fossil fuels. While it is expected that in future, hydrogen fuel cells will pay for themselves in terms of the amount of money they will save, but the steeper upfront costs certainly drive the investors away.