High on the agenda of the recently concluded G20 2019 Assembly in Japan was a discussion on increasing the share of hydrogen – the cleanest and the most abundant element in the universe – in the global energy budget. In Tokyo, the Paris-based International Energy Agency, presented a report on the significance of hydrogen in the global energy transition to clean and renewable energy systems, the challenges in executing it, and recommended pathways to realise it. Several global innovation efforts are focused on clean and abundant energy resources to power economies of the future. Already, the advanced, space-faring economies have begun to invest in hydrogen fuel technologies and carbon-based advanced materials. The case for both is compelling.
Of all the chemical fuels, hydrogen is the cleanest and most abundant by far. According to the Hydrogen Council – a coalition of more than 30 large international industries from the automotive, clean energy, advanced materials and oil and gas sectors – hydrogen fuel will address 18% of global energy demands by 2050, create sales worth $2.5 trillion and generate 30 million jobs.
Likewise, the global market for carbon materials – foams, fibres, nanotubes, composites, graphene, graphyne and synthetic diamonds – is estimated to grow about 11.5% in the next five years. These materials are becoming indispensable in the specialty chemical, aerospace, hardware, automobile, semi-conductor and electronics sectors across civilian and military domains. Graphene, a potential semiconductor that eventually will replace silicon, has seen R&D investments worth billions of dollars in China, U.S. and Europe.
So far, India has not entered this space. But it has a unique opportunity to do so now.
Hydrogen fuel and carbon materials Research and Development (R&D) efforts have one thing in common: the methane molecule. India is the second largest emitter of methane in the world. It is also poised to become the third largest economy of the world by 2047, the 100th year of its independence. Unlike other major economies, it aims to grow while meeting the global call for climate-change mitigation. India is on a mega infrastructure drive and has the potential to build a clean and efficient hydrogen-powered transportation sector from methane-cracking – a chemical engineering process that involves splitting the methane (CH4) molecule into solidified carbon (C) and gaseous hydrogen (2H2). Similarly, the country can meet its objective of becoming a high-technology manufacturing powerhouse by producing a steady supply of methane-derived, advanced carbon materials.
Several Indian ministries and companies are working on this technology. The Indian Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) and the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MOP&NG) have made incongruent and siloed attempts to develop indigenous capacities in carbon capture, hydrogen fuel production and hydrogen fuel-cell technologies. For example, for 15 years, the MOP&NG has funded R&D on hydrogen technologies, under its Rs. 100-crore Hydrogen Corpus Fund. This fund is under-utilised, has not spawned the necessary technologies and had minimal collaboration with the MNRE-led National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap.
To break these silos, India’s private and public sectors – including its oil and gas, speciality chemicals, advanced materials, automotive, rail and other transportation-technology companies, as well as its government and private R&D laboratories, venture capitalists and think tanks – must work together. At the moment, Indian institutions are lagging behind many global industrial corporations, particularly in the automotive, chemical, petroleum and electronics sectors, which have formed multinational alliances such as the Hydrogen Council and the Carbon Capture Coalition in bids to become the first movers in developing hydrogen-fuel technologies and carbon materials manufacturing. Whoever wins the race to develop these technologies will be able to influence national legislation and the global geoeconomic strategies shaping these crucial sectors.
India needs to form a cross-sectoral, industry-led, innovation-driven comprehensive national coalition too. Such an alliance – perhaps it should be called Hydrogen India – can collaborate with other global coalitions, make strategic overseas investments, and export its own methane-cracking, hydrogen and carbon materials technologies.
Nationally, a natural centre-state partnership can drive a large-scale conversion of India’s transport sector to hydrogen. For instance, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) is currently pursuing its ambitious Bharatmala Pariyojana and laying more than 80,000 km of new national and state highways and expressways . The MoRTH can enhance this project by installing hydrogen gas storage and refuelling infrastructure along the highways. The project also will expand the domestic market for the multi-trillion-dollar hydrogen fuel technologies, including hydrogen-powered vehicles, and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from road transportation.
Likewise, a special-purpose-vehicle under the Indian Railways, Hydrogen Indian Railways or HINDRail, can build and operate hydrogen-powered trains and hydrogen storage and fuelling infrastructure along India’s vast rail network. HINDRail can commercialise the indigenously built hydrogen fuel cell-based hybrid locomotive , which is currently undergoing tests. The goal should be to compete with international hydrogen-powered train manufacturers, like Siemens-Alstom, that have already begun operating hydrogen-fuel trains in Germany.
India has many reasons to pursue development of a methane economy aggressively. Doing so will create intellectual property from India, create much-needed employment, and reduce energy and techno-economic dependency. Simultaneously, a methane economy will help India cut its greenhouse gas emissions and increase its contribution to global climate action goals.
Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies, Gateway House.
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