Hydrogen Romantics

by | Nov 1, 2021

The lockdown period showed how much human activity has been polluting the environment. The air got cleared and rivers turned blue, something of a first time for the teenage generation. It was proved beyond doubt that with the fast pace of life, mankind, on a consumerism binge, is out to inflict injury upon itself. But as soon as life returned to normal, the pollution levels also returned, demonstrating an uncanny stubbornness.

But the good news is that the science and technology of sustainability are now mainstream and there is an understanding of the needs for water, clean air, food, mobility, and health besides energy which is intertwined with the environment. The return of hydrogen as fuel is one such development as the exhaust of hydrogen fuel is nothing but clean air and water. 

I vividly remember Prof AK Dhol candidly telling us in the class, at GB Pant University where I studied, that mechanical engineers are typically involved with the generation, distribution, and use of energy. The rest of their activities like, the processing of materials; the control and automation of manufacturing systems; the design and development of machines; and the solutions to environmental problems have evolved from this core function of handling energy.

During my missile days at the DRDO, although I worked in making air bottles and airframes, I watched closely my propulsion colleagues who made rocket motors – the solid propellants, the liquid propulsion engines and finally, the amazing technology of Ram Rockets. I developed camaraderie with propulsion scientists Dr Ramprasad Ramakrishna (RR) Panyam and Dr B Subhash Chandran at the apogee of my engineering career while working on the Akash missile system. 

I also watched from the periphery, the conceptual design of the hyperplane, a single-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle in the late 1980s led by Air Commodore R Gopalaswami. It was to be a hydrogen fueled, horizontal take-off, fully reusable single-stage hypersonic vehicle. The project never really took off for the want of budget. Cryogenic GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) rocket engines developed by ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) use hydrogen.

At the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT), where Dr S Chandrasekhar, Director and J C Bose National Fellow, invited me to work as a Platinum Jubilee Mentor, I had the good fortune of meeting Prof CNR Rao, the third Bharat Ratna scientist after Dr CV Raman and Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and the “Hydrogen Man of India” as he is reverentially called.  

I was fascinated by the process of synthesizing hydrogen fuel through the artificial photosynthesis process, on which Rao has been working at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) in Bengaluru. Mankind can generate enough fuel from the atmospheric water vapour and sunlight to meet its transportation fuel requirements and industrial energy needs, he believes.

Prof CNR Rao has received the International Eni Award 2020, also called the Energy Frontier award, for research in renewable energy sources and energy storage. This award is considered to be the Nobel Prize in Energy Research. Italian President, Sergio Mattarella, gave him the award. Prof Rao laments, “Unfortunately, we in India have been used to working on problems that are somewhat repetitive. If we want to be at the cutting edge, we have to be innovators and originators.”

And then recently, I had an online meeting with Dan Bates who lives in Los Angeles and works in the Renewable Energy space. He discussed with me the idea of Aqua Hydrogen, which he placed between the blue hydrogen that is derived from fossil fuels and green hydrogen that is created by splitting water by electricity from a renewable source. He had the technology to create electricity from plastic waste and split water with it to get hydrogen. “Can we do a scale-up and ruggedization in India?” he asked. 

I discussed this with Dr Chandrasekhar and his team at the IICT and they envisaged a completely “closed-loop” to create electricity by pyrolysis of plastic waste, use a part of it for electrolysis of water to generate hydrogen, and use it in a hydrogen cell.  Hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen. 

Hydrogen cells are the fanciest item of our times. They have already revolutionized drones, which were significantly limited by the power and range provided by traditional batteries. Recently, Microsoft made headlines for running one of their data center’s servers on nothing but hydrogen for two days. Nine of the major auto manufacturers are developing hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (HFCEVs) for personal cars.

So, we nodded, and Dan Bates flew to India without wasting any time. Dan had suffered a brain stroke earlier this year, which affected his right side and yet he travelled alone from the other side of the planet. This speaks of his indomitable spirit. The enthusiasm his visit generated amongst us was palpable.  We learnt from Dan Bates about #CleanSeas, a societal mission of The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a global movement to tackle the excessive use of single-use plastics and get rid of dangerous microplastics in our toiletries and cosmetics.

Dan is CEO and President of Clean Vision Corporation, which is a holding company that acquires and operates sustainable clean technology and green energy businesses, and he would be starting with an investment of 100 million USD in setting up two integrated pyrolysis-electrolysis plants with plastic waste as feed and hydrogen fuel as output in India. 

Going by the assertion of the Chief of India’s biggest energy company, Reliance, by 2030, India will be producing hydrogen at a dollar for a kilogram that will beat Rs 1000/- worth of petrol. But this technology does not come neat and packaged. It must be nurtured, refined and perfected. From now to Hydrogen Fuel Cells will be a journey of a few years but India will be at par with the best in the world. 

May be not my generation, but the next ones would live in smog-free cities and see no plastics in their surroundings. I would be writing a book soon on the Hydrogen saga starting with a quote from British cosmologist and astrophysicist, Martin Rees, “All the atoms we are made of are forged from hydrogen in stars that died and exploded before our solar system formed. So, if you are romantic, you can say we are literally stardust. If you are less romantic, you can say we’re the nuclear waste from fuel that makes stars shine.” I believe, I am stardust! 

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21 Comments

  1. A very interesting article and I wonder why we don’t see such articles. The hydrogen fuel that launches NASA rockets into space and provides electrical power via fuel cells produces only one waste product: water so pure the astronaut crew can drink it. You have painted such a beautiful picture that anyone would fall for it. But I have my doubts and must share them here.

    Here on Earth, the first cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells hit the market in 2015, promising cleaner air and a healthier planet. But if you have yet to see one on the road, you’re not alone. There are fewer than 7,000 in the U.S. So, my question to Mr. Bates is why hasn’t hydrogen gone mainstream as an alternative to gasoline-powered engines ?

    I personally feel we are obsessed with the transport sector just because it is visible, but the fact is that it contributes only one-third of the greenhouse gases. It is time to re-engineer current liquid natural gas infrastructure for hydrogen rather than trying to sell hydrogen cars. Wherever natural gas is used in industry, go there and get hydrogen from there and make hydrogen fuel as commonplace as perhaps petromax lamps in the villages.

  2. A refreshing break from the topics on which you are writing for quite some time Prof Tiwariji !

    Your inimitable style of romantically articulating the need to take forward Hydrogen as Fuel of Future is superb !!

  3. Dear sir, thanks for a very interesting blog on Hydrogen. The clean energy is the need of the hour and that is the only way for beating the pollution from different sources used for generating energy and also to address the menace of plastic. Plastic I used to think as gift to the mankind for the convenience and possible usages it provides without really knowing the far reaching effect it has on environment, flora and fauna and health. Plastic to hydrogen to clean energy is a novel solution which can address multiple problems in one go.

    We have Dr Chandrasekhar, we have Prof CNR Rao yet we are no where. That is the unfortunate part. The political class and the leadership of the country is more interested in WHAT IS THERE IN IT FOR THEM. Given the right encouragement and facilities we have the capability to provide solutions to the most complex issues which will be beneficial for humankind at large. I am optimist and your statement INDIA WILL BE AT PAR WITH THE BEST OF THE WORLD makes my optimism multifold. Thank you once again and I am eagerly looking forward for your book on HYDROGEN.

  4. The dream is perfect! Hydrogen powered Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), more efficient than conventional internal combustion engine vehicles and producing no tailpipe emissions—except water vapor and warm air. Toyota even declared innovation as power in their advertisement of mid-sized hydrogen FCEV called MIRAI, the Japanese word for “future.”

    Essentially Mirai is an electrical running on electricity through reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. You fill up with hydrogen fuel, in the same way as you buy gasoline or diesel at a filling station. The fuel is contained in high-pressure tanks and fed into a fuel cell stack, where the hydrogen and the oxygen found naturally in the air react with each other and generate electricity. Would these car be made in India?

  5. Very interesting article Sir. There is excitement in the air in Saudi Arabia about Hydrogen. Sun-scorched expanses and steady Red Sea breezes make the northwest tip of Saudi Arabia may turn into the best real estate if made a global hub for green hydrogen as a $5 billion plant powered entirely by sun and wind that will be among the world’s biggest green hydrogen makers when it opens in the planned exclusively renewable energy powered megacity of Neom in 2025. Please keep writing about positive and hopeful ideas.
    Thank you Sir

  6. Very refreshing and informative article Sir to read about the application of potential technology for converting plastic to hydrogen fuel through the pyrolysis-electrolysis process. I think this can indeed be a game changer for not only the economy but also in creating processes which enable disposing waste in a constructive manner. Very happy to see your technology forte back as an article Sir and am very optimistic to see smog-free cities and no plastics in the near future. More importantly I think what we need currently is the “will” to do things for benefit of humanity.

  7. Romance with Hydrogen is the topic which hits the bull’s eye. It is there – At the right time at the right place. What with One sun One World One Grid call by our PM Mr Narendra Modi while addressing a recently concluded session on clean technology at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow making headlines. Batting to re-establish the environmental balance and providing clean energy everywhere every time is indeed a superlative idea. As we understand, Sun gives as much energy in one hour as humankind consumes in a whole year, it therefore would be appropriate to harness wherever and whenever the sun shines bright in any or every part of the world, store and channel it through the grid world over. Possible… Possible… makes sense. As simple as we distribute power at present through our National Grid system, likewise it would be clean technology world over through one grid. Voila!! I see it coming.

    Likewise as you rightly put it, the awareness of water, clean air, food, mobility, and health besides energy has made inroads and alternatives for uplifting and improving are being exploited. Channelizing hydrogen exhaust of clean air and water as fuel is one such development. Who else could be more appropriate a person than our bespectacled Prof. A.K.Dhol, HOD Mech. Eng at G.B Pant University who infused in us the real role of a Mechanical Engineer to handle various types and forms of energy?

    Your having interacted with Dr. S Chandrasekhar – The Hydrogen Man of India, working on generation of fuel from atmospheric water vapour and sunlight for transportation fuel requirements and with Prof CNR Rao researching renewable energy sources and its storage raises our level of expectation, with a hope that a nice Indian meal is being cooked. The fragrance is emanating and spreading all over, improving our appetite and as they say sweeter is the fruit which comes after a wait, let’s hope we get to taste and experience at the earliest.

    Also works of Dan Bates as you mentioned Arun ji on Aqua Hydrogen creating electricity by pyrolysis of plastic waste and in the process generating Hydrogen is again praiseworthy. Well, couldn’t understand much of the process but that we get Hydrogen cells which are revolutionizing the world of drones in itself gives a kick.

    As I get to know, nine major automakers are working on Hydrogen Fuel Cells to be used in electric vehicles for personal cars, rings the bell of satisfaction. Another positive profess from Reliance Chief about India likely to produce Hydrogen at a dollar for a Kilogram within a decade will put us at par with the best in the world is very heart warming.

    The world understands the need of alternative source of energy, clean energy free of smog, plastic etc. then how couldn’t we be romantic, with the AQI expected to be near zero, heart pumping clean blood, the feel good hormones secreting happy hormones – endorphins, we are bound to be Romantic….Let’s hope our wishes come true in a decade or so and Hydrogen Romanticism is flouted all around. It would be worth falling in love again irrespective of the age.

  8. Let the festival of light bring light and enlightenment in everybody’s life. Happy Deepawali.

    Modern-day life style (greed and consumerism) is the major cause of environmental degradation. Burgeoning human population is another drag on the environment. Recycling and renewable energy are the two keys to sustain the environment including the existence of humans.

    The humanity will owe a great deal to the ‘Hydrogen Man’ Dr. CNR Rao for its existence and survival, when the power of ‘hydrogen power’ is realized for the benefit of common person. Plastics are to stay. At best, we can minimize their use, but we cannot eliminate them. They should be recycled and used in some productive manner such as generating electricity, road building, garment making etc. If used for generating electricity, which, then, can be used to produce hydrogen from water, it will kill two birds with one stone.

    We should welcome Dan Bates and others to India, who can help the country in meeting its demand of clean energy. We may not enjoy the benefits of new technologies and consequently safe environment, at least the future of our children will be safe and secure.

  9. This blog has come as a pleasant breeze of a new world and your use of the word ‘Romantics’ indeed added fragrance of hope into it. It is so depressing to keep talking about environmental pollution and cursing our farmers that they are burning their agro-waste and even lamenting about celebrating Diwali with firecrackers.

    But energy is inseparable with money. Hydrogen production from low-carbon energy is currently expensive. Green hydrogen could cost approximately $6/kg now, which makes it considerably more expensive than fossil fuels. However, with a drop in the costs of solar PV and wind power generation, setting up electrolyzers at places that have significant renewable resources can serve as a low-cost supply alternative to hydrogen.

    I wish India would become the global hub of Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs) beating China in Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs). Why can we not invite Toyota and Hyundai to make their “Mirai” and “ix” in India? Hydrogen can also be used to take advantage of cheaper rates of grid electricity at nighttime. I am and thousands like me would wait for your book on Hydrogen. Kuchh to badelaga!

  10. Prof Tiwari, I just cant wait to see Hydrogen become the clean fuel we all have been and keep praying for!

  11. Respected sir, Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Hydrogen and it’s impacts on coming years and will hope present work that’s going on is the need of the hour. With kind to and wishes for Deepawali.

  12. Dear Sir, I believe it’s going to happen very soon and you with God’s grace you will be there to see that transformation. In last 10 years things have changed very fast in India at all front. Biofuel is on the verge of extinction and the process are getting higher every day, we don’t have any option other than to switch to the renewable form of energy. Hydrogen fuel is the best option as the byproduct (Oxygen & water) is the basis of life in any from on earth. It is also important to control the environmental pollution to decrease the global warming otherwise the damage to our environment will be non-revertible.

    Our system should be more independent of bio-fuels as soon as possible, the hydrogen is going to play an important role no doubts. I also, see this is going to change the political environment as well across the world as most of the terror activities are happening because of demand of the fuel in developed countries. The money earned from these bio-fuel are getting invested in these activities. A clean environment will lead to a healthy life and the life span of people will increase to more than 100yrs, I believe. It would be like getting connected with the nature’s atom directly. The future of hydrogen energy is realy good!

  13. Arun ji, great innovation to free our future generations from plastic waste issues.

  14. It is indeed an interesting thought that if it is only hydrogen that gives energy in whatever fuel we burn, why not use pure hydrogen as a fuel. And then hydrogen is everywhere like water. You split the water into hydrogen and oxygen and use both. So, it is all about engineering.

    Honestly, I was surprised when PM Modi talked about ‘green hydrogen’ on Independence Day from Red Fort, but when Reliance Chairman started talking about Hydrogen and in the Glasgow Climate Change Conference earlier this week it was told that we are on the cusp of an energy revolution that could see hydrogen play a key role I see this blog as writing on the wall.

    Using decarbonized energy in our homes, offices, and factories will change the way our system works. Finally, our leaders have this one noble mission to wean the world off hydrocarbons and put it on a path to net-zero. Personally, I am excited to see myself as a stardust. Pity to those who choose to crawl, choose to stroll, when they can indeed sour in the sky.

  15. At a time when rising prices of fossil fuels and their impact on air quality and global warming have become a serious cause of concern for common people, your blog on the potential of hydrogen as a source of clean and green fuel gives us hope. This is a challenge for our scientific and technology community to harness the full potential of this fuel for meeting our rising energy needs while protecting our mother earth. We wish to know more about scientific developments in this field and its practical applications in India as well as internationally. Thank you very much for your timely blog.

  16. Sir, One who reads your blog can’t but be an optimist. Thank you for initiating conversations on hydrogen romantics. The need for sustainability must make the related technologies scalable and rugged. The blog gives us a glimpse –your fans would eagerly wait for your book.

  17. This is a timely writing on a topic dear to my heart as I was involved in a hydrogen startup while in Austin, Texas in the year 2002. At that time, hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells were very hot topics with the promise we were on the verge of moving towards a hydrogen economy. The startup had novel chemistry involving the use of a variety of colloidal metals to catalyze metal-water reactions for hydrogen generation. The inventor was a chiropractor who loved to experiment. We also had a professor of Chemistry on the founding team.

    Over a few years many experiments were done with interesting results which we could not fully explain. We did attract some large companies, the likes of Dow Chemical and others, and licensed the technology to a large producer of industrial and agricultural chemicals. To my knowledge, the technology didn’t see the light of commercialization.

    With battery technology continuing to improve, it will be interesting to see if hydrogen fuel cells can penetrate the transportation sector. It comes down to whether it’s more cost effective to store the energy from our renewable or other energy sources into hydrogen or batteries. The current leader is batteries, but the future leader will depend on the relative impact of technology innovations. I’m also hopeful that technology will enable commercially viable fusion energy – but that’s another discussion altogether.

    I believe we are all stardust and we can do wonders to improve our livelihood through innovations. The energy sector is poised for such innovations in the coming years ahead!

  18. Good blog.
    If our sun and perhaps other suns in the galaxy use hydrogen to ‘live’ , ‘procreate’ and ”sustain’ its ‘procreactions’ (apologies for of these words, as this is what came to mind), I find no other better reason as to why should we not use that fuel our parent uses.

  19. Glad to see this while G20 World Leaders are holding critical World Climate talks. As you shared, truly happy that science and technology of sustainability are now becoming mainstream. Since the world has moved so much ahead in the direction of exploiting nature with mad consumerism, looks like the approach will have to be two pronged.. Leveraging effective administration & policies to reduce exploitation on one hand while creating innovative scientific means to create something beautiful out of everything waste. Never thought of critical role the Hydrogen plays in here. Glad to learn so much from this one..

    Loved the analogy of Stardust and Nuclear waste.. Looking forward to your upcoming book on Hydrogen saga..

  20. Thank you for writing about important topics regularly. Please write on women’s issues too. It’s scary to think of increased pollution harming our lives in our contemporary society. However, your last lines are comforting. I wish that your statement – “India will be at par with the best in the world” will come true soon.

  21. Good morning sir, thanks for sharing your views on Hydrogen fuel, I too firmly believe that’s the future. Incidentally I was talking to an investor friend and he too was of the same opinion.

    Look forward to reading your book on Hydrogen, I am sure it will give a lot of insights, from idea to reality. Best Wishes.

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