22 Jul 2015 20:31 IST

It’s time for fuel cells to stage a comeback

But the problem with fuel cells is that you have to have hydrogen first. Here, the gas is never available in its free, elemental form. Hydrogen is always mixed with some other element and you have to separate it.

While the technology was born in 1839, it came into use only very recently

‘E2 India’ may come across as a rather odd name for a company, especially so to Indians, but such names are trendy and modern in the US. (Believe it or not, there is a company called ‘8point3 Degrees Energy’.) The promoter of E2 India, (which incidentally happens to be another company with an interesting name - Intelligent Energy) must have thought it fit to give the business a name that has a nice, modern ring, for the business itself is certainly modern. E2 India is into energy storage.

Those of you who have read an earlier article in this column would be familiar with the significance of energy storage technologies in the modern world. ‘Energy storage’ is probably where the most research is happening, and will generate thousands of PhDs, and, on top of this, if you have an efficient energy storage system, you can call yourself a winner. E2 India is an energy storage company. It is into a storage technology that for a long time has been fit to be described as ‘waiting to happen’, but is actually beginning to happen now.

I am talking of ‘fuel cells’. E2 India has bagged orders for maintaining 30,000 telecom towers and its mandate is to switch the source of energy to power the towers from diesel or other sources to fuel cells. Later, it will fuel-cell-power hundreds of thousands of telecom towers.

Now, some of you probably have only a fuzzy idea of what fuel cells are, which is okay, because while the technology was born in 1839, it came into use only very recently. Don’t ever let jargon intimidate you.

Jargon buster

The principle behind fuel cells is so absurdly simple that you might as well call it ‘fool cell’, just as you call the television set an ‘idiot box’.

Here are the basics, simplified of course. A fuel cell generates electricity using hydrogen. A hydrogen atom has one negatively charged electron and one positively charged proton. The fuel cell separates them. It makes the electrons flow in one direction and the protons in another. The idea is to create a ‘flow of electrons’; as you know ‘flow of electrons’ is what electricity is.

The electrons and protons meet up eventually at another point — a happy re-union — and become a full atom again, at which point the atom also meets (or reacts) with the oxygen in the air. Hydrogen atom plus oxygen — and what have you? Water.

That’s a fuel cell for you. It produces electricity while creating zero pollution. That’s why people love it.

But the problem with fuel cells is that you have to have hydrogen first. Here, the gas is never available in its free, elemental form. Unless, of course, you could dip into the sun – which is mostly hydrogen. Hydrogen is always mixed with some other element and you have to separate it.

So, for the beautiful thing called ‘fuel cell’ to take off, you need to first produce hydrogen. No hydrogen, no fuel cell. But to make hydrogen you need energy. Therein lies the catch: you need to spend less energy in producing hydrogen than the fuel cell would produce, otherwise it is a loss-making proposition, right? If you can’t produce and store hydrogen cheap, ‘fuel cells’ can’t take off. Up till now, the economics didn’t quite work out.

Case for Hydrogen

Besides, if you look at hydrogen as a fuel from an environmental perspective, it doesn’t make sense because in producing hydrogen — mostly by separating hydrogen from carbon in natural gas — you end up producing carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide, as you have seen in the previous articles of this column, is yucky.

Thus, due to reasons of economics and the environment, hydrogen fuel cells have not taken off, despite a lot of talk on the subject. There has been a buzz around fuel cells for a number of years — global automobile companies are working on cars that could be powered by fuel cells.

However, a few things are working in favour of hydrogen now. India has hundreds of wind power plants. These generate electricity only when the wind blows, and not necessarily when there is demand for power — such as during nights. Each year, hundreds of megawatt hours of electricity go waste: either because there is less demand for electricity, or the transmission lines are busy carrying power from other sources.

The idea that surplus wind power could be used to split water to produce hydrogen (and oxygen) is now being considered. A supporter of this idea is Dr R K Malhotra, President, Hydrogen Association of India, who has had a few conversations with wind power producers in this regard. Elsewhere in the world, such as in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Boulder, Colarado, US, the idea of using wind power to produce hydrogen is being researched.

If hundreds of wind power (or even solar power) plants can be used to produce hydrogen, then fuel cells are in business. But you could turn it around the other way too. If there is a big demand for fuel cells, hydrogen will become affordable and its production will happen and increase. Any which way you look at it, it appears that the time of fuel cells is just around the corner, judging by the faith and money that companies such as E2 India are putting into it.