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Singapore — State-run Indian Oil Corp. is working on a long-term energy transition strategy, which would involve producing hydrogen in a cost-effective way as well as developing technology to combine compressed natural gas with hydrogen, its chairman Sanjiv Singh told S&P Global Platts in an interview.

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In addition to refining and fertilizers, hydrogen provides a huge opportunity for the transportation sector, and in other commercial applications, but one of the biggest challenges to overcome is to make it commercially viable, he added.

"I see a lot of potential and lots of opportunities for hydrogen. There are three parts to the story -- hydrogen production, hydrogen fuel cells and how we use hydrogen in the transportation sector," Singh said. "We see ourselves as a company to provide the answers for producing hydrogen in an economical way."

India is joining other Asian countries, such as China, South Korea, Japan, in speeding up research on how to embrace hydrogen in its energy mix and cut dependence on fossil fuels.

In addition, while Australia has set aside funds for research on the sector, a few companies from Singapore have tied up with some Japanese firms to study the prospects for hydrogen.

Singh said IOC is working on technology to develop hydrogen-spiked CNG -- or H-CNG -- which would involve partly reforming methane and CNG.

"Under this process, the entire CNG of a station passes through this new reforming unit and part of the methane gets converted into hydrogen, with the outlet product having 17%-18% hydrogen," Singh said. "So if you are using this product, the emission level from a Euro-4 equivalent vehicle comes down to that of a Euro-6 level vehicle."

Singh said IOC had set up this unit at a bus station in the Indian capital and there were plans to expand in to other cities in the future.

"We have done the base line survey of 50 buses using this technology. We are waiting for the statutory approval for starting the unit. Once it is approved, we will have another field trial for about four months or so and then we may scale up this concept to other bus depots in many other cities," Singh said.

As part of the hydrogen vision, IOC, in coordination with vehicle manufacturers, will take up lab-scale development of H-CNG engines.

Other projects identified include the development of hydrogen-powered three-wheeler and bus engines in association with the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, the conversion of CNG three wheelers and buses to H-CNG, and the development of hydrogen conversion kits for portable generators.

According to Roman Kramarchuk, Platts head of Scenarios, Policy and Technology Analytics, the transportation sector provides ones of the best opportunities in Asian countries to expand the use of hydrogen.

Hydrogen fuel cells

Commenting on the prospects of hydrogen fuel cells, Singh said there is a need to develop technology that would help bring down the cost of production. This would eventually help in speeding up the process of embracing it.

"In hydrogen fuel cells, you can have all the benefits of EVs but at the same time eliminate all the bottlenecks of using batteries," Singh said.

Indian energy industry officials said the major concern with battery vehicles going forward would be the dependence on lithium and cobalt, and the issues around its pricing and availability, besides the environmental challenges during mining. The shift to battery electric vehicles would also require charging infrastructure to be developed.

Battery electric vehicles would likely have limited range and would also require a much longer time for charging batteries, according to Ravinder Kumar Malhotra, president of the Hydrogen Association of India. He added that hydrogen can be re-fueled much faster, in 2-3 minutes like natural gas at dispensing stations, and the vehicles would likely also have longer range.

"In addition to ensuring energy security to the nation, the environmental benefits of using hydrogen in a fuel cell vehicle could be significant," Singh added.

India is building a large gas grid for the supply of natural gas, which will cover almost 70% of India's population. In order to boost hydrogen accessibility, experts have suggested that India could aim for decentralized hydrogen reformers close to the natural gas pipeline and supply hydrogen to nearby areas.

Platts has started providing independent hydrogen price assessments based on the value of hydrogen produced in the US, Europe and Japan.