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From IOC to Reliance: India's hydrogen ambitions get stronger by the day

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From IOC to Reliance: India's hydrogen ambitions get stronger by the day

Highlights

Big energy firms in India prepare hydrogen strategy

Industry weigh options between EV batteries, fuel cells

Policy regulation, bringing down costs key challenges

Singapore — India's push toward embracing hydrogen is gaining speed as some of the country's top energy companies, such as Indian Oil Corp., Reliance Industries and Adani Group, are increasingly highlighting the urgency to move toward the carbon-free fuel, which may have an edge over other non-fossil fuel sources.

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The recent announcement by Mukesh Ambani, India's richest individual and chairman of Reliance Industries, to embrace hydrogen in its efforts toward making the biggest private refiner a net carbon-zero firm by 2035 may serve as a wake-up call on the potential the fuel holds in a country that imports 80% of its crude oil requirements.

"While Reliance will remain a user of crude oil and natural gas, we are committed to embracing new technologies to convert our CO into useful products and chemicals," Ambani told shareholders. "Reliance also has proprietary technology to convert transportation fuels to valuable petrochemical and material building blocks. And at the same time, we will replace transportation fuels with clean electricity and hydrogen."

The statement from Reliance comes days after India's road transport ministry invited comments from all stakeholders on the safety of hydrogen propelled vehicles, highlighting efforts not just by the industry, but also by the government.

"I am sure more companies will start to look at hydrogen in India as big companies like Reliance are making their intentions clear," said Ravinder Kumar Malhotra, president of the Hydrogen Association of India. "Even the government is starting to look at hydrogen seriously."

Most hydrogen in India is produced through reforming methane. Malhotra added that policymakers will have to push carbon-capture technologies that encourage production of hydrogen from coal, rather than expanding power output from coal-based power plants to drive electric vehicles.

"We don't have lithium and battery resources in abundance. Indian policy makers should do a systematic analysis on whether EVs or hydrogen-based fuel cells will be better option. Fuel cell costs are coming down," he added.

ENERGY TRANSITION PUSH

Not just Reliance but India's biggest state-run refiner IOC is also nurturing a dream to make it big in hydrogen.

The company is working on technology to develop hydrogen-spiked compressed natural gas, 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.

IOC's research and development center, in collaboration with vehicle manufacturers, has undertaken field validation exercises to arrive at the optimal hydrogen percentage to be spiked in CNG for deriving maximum benefits in fuel economy and emissions reduction.

"IOC is also extensively working with heavy duty automakers to optimize the catalyst recipe of three-way catalytic converters fitted on buses and trucks to bring down the emission levels within the permissible range of the Euro-6 emission limits when CNG is replaced with H-CNG," an IOC official said.

In addition to the transport sector, other sectors also offer plentiful opportunities in India, according to analysts.

"India's existing industry could play a significant role in the uptake of low-carbon hydrogen.", said Zane McDonald, Lead Hydrogen Analyst at S&P Global Platts Analytics, adding that the domestic sponge iron industry annually consumes over 1.5 million mt of fossil-derived hydrogen.

In addition, the country's agricultural sector also represents a significant demand for hydrogen in the form of ammonia-based fertilizers. "These existing hydrogen demand pockets provide a near-term opportunity to transition to low and zero carbon hydrogen through carbon capture retrofits or the electrolysis of renewables," McDonald added.

OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES

According to New Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute, TERI, there is potential to scale up hydrogen use in India up to ten-fold by 2050.

"Zero-carbon trucks, using hydrogen fuel cells, are already technically feasible, although the cost and carbon intensity are currently greater than that of diesel equivalents," TERI said.

However, TERI has said that India needs to have updated regulations to permit safe use of hydrogen, at high pressure, across a number of end-use sectors, as well as encourage electrolyzer manufacturing and commercialization, while collaborate internationally on developing hydrogen technologies.

"I am personally hopeful about hydrogen in the long run," Gautam Adani, chairman of Adani Group, wrote on social media recently. "With the prospect of the future marginal cost of renewable energy dropping precipitously, green hydrogen produced by the splitting water could be the game changer."

Hydrogen supply and distribution in India faces the same barriers that it does in other regions -- such as high production costs and complimentary infrastructure requirements, said Caroline Still, cross energy analyst at Energy Aspects.

"In India, these obstacles could prove to be more challenging to overcome given the scale on investment required versus strained public finances," she added.

In order to produce blue hydrogen -- which is currently the cheaper, more mature and more scalable of the two carbon neutral production methods, the other being green hydrogen or electrolysis -- India would need to import more LNG as domestically produced natural gas is limited, adding to production costs, she added.