The need to combat climate change and stall ecological degradation has made itself felt with pressing significance. With leading nations across the world actively attempting to reach the net-zero emissions goal in the next few decades, the quest to seek alternative energy sources has become more earnest than ever before. India too has set an ambitious target of reducing the emissions intensity of its economy by 45 per cent by 2030.

The automotive sector in particular has sought to evolve to renewable energy sources and reduce its carbon footprint. Against this backdrop, hydrogen fuel cell technology is emerging globally as a valuable multisector alternative for fossil fuels.

Fuel cell technology relies on the chemical energy of hydrogen to generate electricity in a clean manner and effectively. Unlike primary fuels like coal and petroleum, or renewable energy sources like wind or solar power, hydrogen is an energy carrier. This means that hydrogen is required to be produced using primary sources of energy, such as natural gas, water, biomass, etc. Once procured, hydrogen can be used to supply electricity across sectors, including industrial and commercial buildings, transportation, and long-term grid-based energy storage in reversible systems.

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are powered by hydrogen. Like all electric vehicles, FCEVs use electricity to power an electric motor. However, instead of using electricity through batteries that draw power from the grid to function, FCEVs generate electricity using a fuel cell stack powered by hydrogen, which is stored on-board.

FCEVs are among the cleanest modes of transportations as they release no harmful tailpipe emissions, and only emit water vapour and warm air. With future technical enhancements, there will be a forecasted improvement in overall WTW (well-to-wheel) efficiency for FCEVs which is pegged at around 30–35 per cent% today.

Myriad benefits

FCEVs can be instrumental in achieving energy security and fulfilling de-carbonisation goals. While it is crucial to remember battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and FCEVs are not competing but complementary technologies, hydrogen-operated EVs offer some important benefits over lithium-powered BEVs.

In the context of certain duty cycles and applications, they possess higher energy density (more energy per unit mass), require shorter fuelling durations, and have long-range applications that are not viable with BEVs because of the constraints of LI-Ion batteries. With an inherent renewability component and no emissions, FCEVs are also very environmental friendly.

In particular, transitioning to hydrogen fuel cell heavy-duty vehicles can have a significant impact in reducing greenhouse emissions. In the near future, hydrogen fuel cells will be key in achieving higher range applications (exceeding 500 km) because of faster refuelling and higher density.

The road ahead

Hydrogen technology is still at a very nascent stage in the country, and there is limited infrastructure and scale of hydrogen dispensing units available. This makes the acquisition and total cost of ownership for FCEVs higher. Further, most hydrogen production methods deployed today rely on fossil fuels.

However, government incentives and localisation of core aggregates are likely to reduce costs and improve the overall economics of FCEV. A surge in the demand for this technology is expected in the second half of the current decade.

The newly introduced National Hydrogen Energy Mission Programme by the Prime Minister aims to bring open access to renewable energy and increase the production of green hydrogen (that does not rely on fossil fuels to be produced).

With these positive steps, one can expect a decisive move towards a sustainable future of mobility, with hydrogen fuel cell technology playing a predominant role across segments, in public transport, commercial vehicles, and passenger vehicles.

The writer is President and CTO, Tata Motors

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