The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and Tata Motors Ltd, the country’s largest commercial vehicle maker, are collaborating for a hydrogen fuelled technology to run buses that will be ready for road trials by August next year. The collaboration comes at a time when crude prices are soaring and vehicle makers are looking for non-polluting or low-polluting engines.

Isro will provide the expertise for handling liquid hydrogen, which it uses with liquid oxygen to power the cryogenic engine used to launch heavier rockets. The fuel cells, which will be used to power the bus, are being imported from a Canadian firm, according to Isro. The agency did not disclose the name of the company, but said it is importing the fuel cells on behalf of Tata Motors.

Isro’s G. Madhavan Nair. The space agency will provide the Tatas expertise for handling liquid hydrogen that it uses with liquid oxygen to power cryogenic engines

A spokesman for Tata Motors confirmed the project with Isro, but declined to elaborate. “We are working on all types of clean fuel technology, whether it is hybrid or electric, for buses and cars," he said.

Several Indian companies such as Tata and Bangalore-based Reva Electric Car Co. are working on building vehicles that use fuel cell or so-called green technologies that produce little or zero emission. Globally, Japanese car makers such as Honda Motor Co. Ltd have built cars with clean technologies. Honda recently unveiled the FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle at the Los Angeles Auto Show, and said it will begin limited retail marketing of the vehicle in the US next summer, according to the company’s website. Such vehicles will need special service centres that can maintain and service these engines. The US government is also offering a federal tax cut for vehicles which will not emit carbon.

“As hydrogen-based fuel will only emit water vapour, transport vehicles driven by such a clean fuel will be very ecologically friendly," said G. Madhavan Nair, chairman, Isro. Tata Motors has contributed Rs5 crore to the project, while Isro is spending Rs1 crore in building the prototype.

Gandhi, who pioneered the technology, approached the Tatas with the concept a year ago, who immediately grabbed the idea. “The bus can travel around 350km on 40kg of hydrogen fuel," he said. “Liquid hydrogen can be sourced from fertilizer plants and petroleum refineries. It would be a cost-effective mode of transport if we prove the technology," said Gandhi, who is based in Hyderabad.

Oil prices have nearly touched $100 a barrel and growing concern for the environment is forcing companies and governments to reconsider the excessive use of fuels that release greenhouse gases which cause changes in weather patterns. Worldwide, companies and countries are being forced to come up with technology with less emissions in everything from vehicles to power generation.