(Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)
(Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

Opinion | Fuel cells versus LI batteries is much heat, a lot of gas

It appears likely that both LI and fuel cells will have a role to play in India’s electric vehicle road

The 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) was held last month in Katowice, Poland. The Katowice Climate Package is designed to operationalize the climate change regime contained in the Paris Agreement (2016). It sets out how countries will provide information about their national contributions that describe their domestic climate action, including mitigation, adaptation, and financial support for developing countries.

Though multilateralism is under threat in many areas, including trade and foreign policy, it is the only way forward to combat climate change. While COP24 has clearly set out the rules in many areas of climate action, it left out discussion of some key issues, particularly those arising from the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that predicted serious consequences if temperatures were allowed to rise just 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (they have already risen about 1 degree Celsius).

Transport emission accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It has risen for the last three decades and continues to rise today. To meet the 2050 Paris climate commitments—essential to limiting the temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century—automobiles must be completely decarbonized. This requires ending the hegemony of the internal combustion (IC) engine in the next dozen or so years and replacing it with electric cars. Many do not realize that the electric motor is as old as the IC engine and Nikola Tesla’s (yes, the original Tesla) patent for an AC electric motor predates the Ford Model T by two decades.

There are currently two important sources of power to drive the motor in an electric vehicle (EV). The first is a lithium-ion (LI) battery and the second a hydrogen fuel cell. LI is widely known and is the source of EV power for the Tesla range of cars (manufactured by Panasonic in a Gigafactory joint venture with Tesla in Nevada). It is fast replacing the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in the first generation of hybrid cars. Hydrogen power is available in a few cars like the Toyota Mirai, Hyundai Nexo, and Honda Clarity.

Fuel cells use an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, catalysed by platinum, to produce energy. The only exhaust is the combination product—water. The challenge is to produce hydrogen in an energy-efficient manner, transport it to distribution points and store it in gaseous or liquid form in a car.

The debate over fuel cells vs LI batteries has produced much heat and a lot of gas. Believers in fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) claim that any excess electricity generated in a grid, particularly that which comes from renewable sources, will make the production of hydrogen not only cheap but also GHG neutral. Hydrogen production is currently possible through electrolysis or a thermochemical reaction—and both require energy. In the future, it may be possible using solar energy or a biological process that uses significantly less energy. There is much debate on what is called the “well to wheel" analysis of energy efficiency and the GHG impact of EVs and FCEVs. That analysis favours LI battery technology today and supporters like Elon Musk call the alternative “fool cells". Having become world leaders in LI, China is hedging its bets with a giant investment in the full ecosystem of FCEVs in the Yunfu Industrial Park. Attracted by generous government subsidies, a range of companies covering the full supply chain have now set up shop. China will provide about $12 billion in subsidies to this effort.

There is not much discussion about FCEVs in India. What should India’s approach be?

India, like China, is dependent on imported energy. Therefore, EVs make a lot of sense for the future. There is remarkably little original R&D being done in India on either EVs or FCEVs. The only electric vehicles in the market—both using LI and produced by Mahindra and Tata Motors—have a long way to go in terms of range and quality. At the same time, the vehicle market in India continues to grow at nearly double digits and with it grows automobile GHG emission. India does not provide a meaningful subsidy for either EVs or FCEVs. The government has proposed an increased subsidy under a scheme called Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles (FAME II ). The aggregate budget is said to be 5,500 crores but exactly how that will apply to individual vehicles is not clear and the bill has not yet been passed in Parliament. .

India must make a concerted attempt to incentivize both EVs and FCEVs. Even before the commercial use of these vehicles on the roads, it calls for research and development under Indian conditions with a particular focus on affordability. The technology and adoption call between LI and fuel cells may be too early to make, but it appears likely that both will have a role to play in India’s electric vehicle road.

P.S.: “We were like two atoms in one molecule, hydrogen and oxygen. Both explosive alone, but the source of everything when we came together," Trevor D. Richardson, in Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files.

Disclosure: Narayan Ramachandran is a founding investor in Lithium Urban Technologies, a Bengaluru-based startup.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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