Are Hydrogen Fuel Cells Viable?


Author – Tanmaya Dash & Dinesh Kumar L N


TATA Hydrogen Fuel Cell Bus – Image Source

There is no doubt that fossil fuels have become a liability to human civilization due to their pollution and global warming. While solar and wind power have begun to replace the dirtier coal, there are hardly few alternatives for petrol and diesel. Biodiesel and ethanol have been promising substitutes, but their growth is constrained by lack of large-scale production infrastructure. Electric vehicles are another encouraging innovation for sustainable transport, but we are still relying on fossil fuels to produce electricity.

Hydrogen is the most promising zero-emission fuel that can power any moving vehicle right from a rocket to a car. To imagine an electric car running on hydrogen is the ultimate dream for every environmentalist! Hydrogen powered fuel cells have a remarkable way of converting chemical bonds directly into energy, which gives them a head start – high efficiency and smaller equipment. Just like a typical battery cell, a cathode and anode are dipped in an electrolyte solution. The catalysts in the cathode and anode generate ions and electrons from hydrogen to produce energy.

Natural gas is the most widely used fuel to generate hydrogen. The efficiency of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles tends to be better, with just 1 kilogram of hydrogen providing a mileage of up to 100 km. However, we need to ascertain the safety and affordable of Hydrogen fuel cells before they become mass produced.

History of innovation

Fuel cell tech

Extracting power from Hydrogen fuel cells may sound quite futuristic, but this technology was invented by a British physicist William Grove way back in 1838. General Motors used them first in an automotive in 1950s and the NASA space missions in the early 1960s supported the development of fuel cell generators for manned space missions. The biggest growth booster for the fuel cell technology came in the 1970s with the onset of the global crude oil crisis and increasing environmental awareness. Today, many automotive companies are testing electric vehicles that run on fuel cells.

A limited number of cars have been delivered currently and most car manufacturers are looking at the financial year 2016-17 to start marketing their FCVs. In 2008, Honda released a demonstration fuel cell electric vehicle, Honda FCX Clarity, claiming 60% efficiency. However, Honda phased out the car in 2014, after leasing only 46 cars since inception. Currently, Toyota has a commercial vehicle in the market branded as ‘Toyota Mirai’ that runs on hydrogen, while UTC Power runs buses powered by fuel cells.

Fuel Cell Research in India

Being a hot topic for research, the fuel cell technology is gaining a lot of attention in India. Public and private agencies that are involved in the R&D of fuel cells in India are: Ministry of New & Renewable Energy Sources (MNRE), Indian Railways, Indian Institute of Science, Central Glass & Ceramic Research Institute, TERI, Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd., and Reva Electric Car Company.


However, the only commercial Indian fuel cell based vehicle developed so far is the Starbus Fuel Cell, developed by Tata Motors in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Tata Motors collaborated with ISRO to access its expertise in cryogenic technology and liquid hydrogen handling, which was vital to develop this new technology. The Starbus Fuel Cell vehicle runs on a power of 114 HP developed by 4 roof-mounted hydrogen cylinders. It has a seat capacity of 30 and goes up to a speed of 70 kmph.

MNRE has also indigenously developed a hybrid vehicle that uses a fuel cell battery as an energy source, but it is still under testing. Indigenously developed vehicles are tailor-made to suit local conditions and tend to be cheaper.


Apart from transportation, the fuel cell technology can be used for stationery power generation. Bloom Energy, a California-based company led by non-resident Indian scientist Dr. K.R. Sridhar, has built a fuel cell capable of producing air and fuel from electricity or natural gas. The company’s Bloom Boxes, stacked units of energy servers or fuel cells, produce on-site power for large companies. Bloom Boxes have catalysts made from ceramics instead of expensive precious metals like platinum.

Similarly, Intelligent Energy Corporation, a British fuel cell company, has entered India to set up 400 megawatts of power generated from fuel cells, of which they have already deployed over 100 megawatts. As per their deal with GTL Ltd, Intelligent Energy Corp. is replacing diesel generators with hydrogen fuel cells in 27,000 telecom towers. This reduces dependency on fossil fuels and is also helps in reducing generator emissions. Further, Microsoft engineers have found that if fuel cells are placed close to power consumption units, they also eliminate the need for a power distribution system, which is a big portion of the total capital cost of a software company.

Hurdles to mass implementation

The-Hydrogen-Toyota-MiraiToyota Mirai

If this hydrogen fuel cell is such a promising technology, why it has not become popular then? The cost of setting up a large infrastructure for producing hydrogen is still enormously expensive. Hydrogen dispensing stations along with hydrogen production plants will have to be set up. Toyota, which is in the process of setting up hydrogen filling stations for its Mirai car, has estimated the cost for its hydrogen production plant to be around $1-3million. This high sunk cost is a huge setback for the widespread adoption of this technology. The fuel by itself costs INR800 per liter due to these production issues!

Further, the safe handling of a dangerously explosive fuel like hydrogen is another major hurdle. The science of hydrogen production needs to evolve. Currently 90% of hydrogen fuel is made from natural gas, which is combined with steam to produce methane. Efforts to produce it using methane captured from cow dung or waste management facilities are still in an experimental phase.

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Tanmaya Dash is an energetic Mechanical Engineer who graduated from the prestigious IIT-Kharagpur to join Tata Steel as a Management Trainee in Jamshedpur. With a keen interest in space technology, he is involved in the activities of the Space Technology Students Society. Tanmaya was part of the team that conducted the country’s first space technology festival – the National Students’ Space Challenge. Apart from space technology and astrophysics, he has interests in developing business ventures in clean technology and renewable energy. He also writes articles on various topics and dabbles with poems as well!