Embracing the Fuel of the Future

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Nepali researchers test hydrogen-fuelled car, but much fine-tuning still needed

A year-and-a-half after the Nepal Green Hydrogen Summit, Kathmandu University (KU) last week successfully tested a hydrogen fuel cell car for the first time in Nepal.

KU’s Green Hydrogen Lab used 10kg of water and 45 units of electricity costing $5 to produce 1kg of hydrogen to give a Hyundai SUV a range of 100km. Using petrol to drive the same distance would cost Rs1,400 at the gas station.

At present, running an EV is even cheaper, because a battery-powered car needs Rs106 of electricity to go 100km.

The technology is not new—industries and factories have been using hydrogen for over 100 years to manufacture chemicals and fertilisers, refine oil, and process food, among others.

But earlier processes used fossil energy for the electrolysis to separate hydrogen and oxygen in water molecules. Called Grey Hydrogen, it had a large carbon footprint. There was also Blue Hydrogen produced from methane in natural gas.

Green Hydrogen from electrolysis of water uses renewable energy sources like hydropower or geothermal. Carbon dioxide is not released or involved at any stage, and the clean hydrogen in fuel cells can be used to heat homes and offices and power transportation.

“We in Nepal have an opportunity to use our abundant hydroelectricity to produce hydrogen which can replace imported petroleum,” says Biraj Singh Thapa, who heads the university’s Green Hydrogen Lab.

Nepal’s existing generation capacity is 2,800MW and the government’s target is to reach 30,000MW by 2035. Monsoon hydropower surplus is going waste because of lack of demand at present, while electricity production falls in the dry season.

But with more hydropower plants coming online, Nepal will soon have a winter surplus and new demand has to be created so electricity does not go to waste. Export is one option but it is more beneficial to use the excess electricity within the country to replace petroleum.

If diesel, petrol and gas consumption is reduced by even 10%, Nepal can slash Rs30 billion from its import bill. But even if we sell all of our electricity to India, we will earn just half that amount.

Energy experts say hydrogen is the fuel of the future. Battery-powered cars are replacing petrol cars, and ultimately hydrogen will replace EVs.

“Hydrogen will complement EVs,” says Thapa. “For short distances, electric vehicles are the ideal mode of transport, hydrogen is better suited for long-distance buses and trucks that carry heavy loads.

After the successful test, KU’s Green Hydrogen Lab is working on policies to operationalise and ultimately commercialise hydrogen fuel production. The government has a Green Hydrogen Policy, but it does not yet have working guidelines and directives to move things along.

“There is still a lot to do. How do we tax hydrogen vehicles, number plates, blue plates, and then there is standardisation of refuelling stations,” explains Thapa. “We can have hydrogen refuelling stations ready in six months or less, but need policymakers and leaders to make the move.”

This scenario seems too optimistic to some experts who see many hurdles before hydrogen can replace petrol and diesel — most important will be the cost.

“Unless electricity tariffs come down to $0.4 cents and the electrolysis process down to $500/kW, it won’t be commercially viable to produce hydrogen in Nepal,” maintains Hitendra Dev Shakya, former Managing Director at Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA).

He adds: “At current prices, hydrogen as transport fuel will be very expensive and does not make much sense. Maybe a couple of years down the line when the technology has further evolved. But not now.”

Hydrogen has also been discussed as a way for Nepal to store spilled energy during monsoon for use in the dry season. But experts say there is too much efficiency loss, making it commercially not viable.

Besides transportation, hydrogen from electrolysis of water may have other applications. It can be combined with nitrogen in the atmosphere to produce ammonia, which can be further combined with carbon dioxide to manufacture fertilisers like urea and Diammonium Phosphate (DAP).

“The real application of hydrogen in Nepal is in the production of ammonia and fertilisers, so Nepal can be self-sufficient,” adds Shakya. “Furthermore, ammonia can be liquefied and stored for weeks whereas hydrogen can be stored just for a few days at most, and converting it back to electricity loses much of its efficiency.”

Nepal suffers from a chronic shortage of chemical fertilisers every year, affecting agricultural production. Farmers across the country need at least 700,000 tonnes of urea worth Rs20 billion, which has to be imported and heavily subsidised.

Ammonia production using hydrogen from water and nitrogen from the air is fairly energy-intensive, but using hydropower and channelling carbon dioxide from the cement industry can bring down costs. Capturing CO2 from cement factories would also reduce Nepal’s carbon footprint.

Ammonia is also a refrigerant gas and can purify water. It can also be used in the manufacture of plastics, explosives, textiles, pesticides, dyes and other chemicals. The Nepal Army imports Rs13 billion worth of ammonia for explosives every year.

 

Source: Nepali times