Hydrogen fuel vehicles are the way forward: Brahmbhatt

Ritu Jha-

Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari drives a Hydrogen fuel car.

Dhaval J. Brahmbhatt, President & CEO, PHYchip Corporation and Vice-Chairman (former Chairman) IEEE Vehicle Technology Society San Francisco Bay Area and a big proponent of hydrogen fuel-led vehicles in an exclusive interview with indica shared his views on India’s move toward Hydrogen fuel said, “It’s a plus-minus situation, but I truly believe in for India it makes a lot of sense.”

“But I think we should follow not expect for future just one technology-based transportation solution (as it is today with over 99 percent of vehicles being are internal combustion engine (ICE) based vehicles in India), that should change. Meaning there likely would be a mix of technologies such as lithium battery-powered EV, hydrogen fuel cell-powered EV, aluminum battery-based EV, plug-in hybrid technology vehicles, etc,” he said.

Brahmbhatt was also associated with the ‘California Fuel Cell Partnership’ that got huge support from the former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, ‘California Fuel Cell Partnership’, who envisioned the ‘Hydrogen Highway’ running north-south in California – a dream project of Schwarzenegger to promote zero-emission vehicles, and himself Brahmbhatt drives a Toyota Mirai, pointed to the Indian Union Road Transport Minister, Nitin Gadkari, [who drives Toyota Mirai as well] and said that India has collaborated with Toyota but “they should bring more manufacturers into this such as Hyundai, BMW, etc.”

Pointing at Elon Musk, business magnate and CEO of Tesla Motors, who often refers to the hydrogen fuel cells as ‘Fools cell’, Brahmbhatt said, “Musk has to say that because his whole business is based on electric cars powered by onboard batteries. If you look at it objectively and from a purely technological point of view and move beyond passenger cars to bigger vehicles like trucks and buses, then hydrogen fuel cell technology is the only logical choice based on the current engineering options.”

“If you do manufacture an electric bus or an 18-wheeler truck based on rechargeable batteries and if you want to rapid charge it, the width of that copper cable quantity of copper in the connecting with you will require to connect the charging port of an 18-wheel truck will be huge, the weight and the cost of batteries in these large vehicles would be totally impractical. So the whole thing becomes impractical,” he said.

He added that there is a scarcity of lithium worldwide – particularly in India, and the process of mining lithium is also not that clean. “So, in my opinion, this is a big opportunity, and there is so much room for innovation. But, first, the governments will have to help in creating the hydrogen refueling infrastructure, then quickly bring down the cost of hydrogen fuel cells per kilogram. And then also must deal with another hurdle –. transporting hydrogen cheaply and safely. The new infrastructure will be needed for this and All that will require a lot of innovation.”

”When you look at a country like India, let us imagine PM Modi wants to convert all the vehicles in India to battery electric. The problem is that India has very little lithium and so he India will have to import. The biggest supplier of lithium batteries is China and that could become a nightmare for India,” he said.

“The situation could be much worse than being dependent on the Iranians and the Arabs for oil. Would you want to be dependent on China?” Brahmbhatt said, referring to India’s move towards battery electric vehicles as compared to hydrogen fuel cell-based electric vehicles.

“I am quite hopeful for India going for hydrogen fuel cell technology because given time with its natural resources with respect to and solar energy, it can produce green hydrogen.” On how to produce go for green hydrogen, he said, “You can make hydrogen from water using with help of renewable energy/electricity. If Since that electricity is generated from a renewable source like solar energy, then it is called green hydrogen. Another method (commonly used at present) to produce hydrogen is based on using natural gas but that’s not a good idea as that also produces carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in addition to hydrogen.”

When asked whether we would need a refueling station for hydrogen fuel, Brahmbhatt said: “Yes, in the San Francisco Bay Area these hydrogen fuel stations have been installed within at the same premises where normal gas stations are.”

Talking on the what are the challenges he sees, going forward, Brahmbhatt said that there are many hurdles since it’s a new technology, the cost is high and transportation of more hydrogen is more complicated because it is the lightest element in the universe which means it needs to be compressed and transported in liquid form which will need additional electricity and energy and capable hydrogen transportation vehicles. But, if it gets manufactured in bulk, the price will most certainly come down.

India has various options due to its technological capability and advanced manufacturing base, he said, because it could also use nuclear power to convert power to produce hydrogen but it would need a lot of funding to set up the refueling infrastructure needed for this to succeed.

“The problem is that the demand is less and cost is high. The cost of hydrogen is high,” Brahmbhatt said. “Presently in the U.S., we don’t pay for the first 15,000 dollars, as the car company gives you a credit card. They give you a card and now when I look at $7 a gallon for gasoline, then I feel okay – driving a hydrogen-powered car is not a bad option.”

Adding on he said that there is no difference when driving a hydrogen fuel cell car – and it’s like driving an electric car, because ‘it is an electric car’! The electricity in Tesla is stored in huge batteries while hydrogen cars do not have heavy batteries, they make electricity from onboard hydrogen. Therefore, a hydrogen fuel cell car is 800 to 1000 pounds lighter than a comparable battery EV. The mileage is good too – nearly 400 miles after fully refueling a Toyota Mirai kilogram. And it takes about 5 minutes to refuel not hours like it would for a battery EV.

On why the U.S. is not robust about promoting Hydrogen fuel cell-driven cars, Brahmbhatt blamed politics, short-term thinking, and the current energy and the emerging EV lobby compared it to gun laws. He believes that hydrogen trucks are a better option if there is an established refueling station network nearby, installed within a regular gas station premises.

Brahmbhatt pointed out that India needs proper policies and incentives because although hydrogen is the most abundant and common element in the universe,  “The problem is, you cannot find hydrogen by itself on earth. Hydrogen is in water, and other chemicals such as in natural gas. When you want to split water to produce hydrogen, you will need energy or electricity,” he added.

“I feel that these are early manufacturing problems that happen with any new technology,” Brahmbhatt said, referring to the challenges in introducing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

On the Indian government’s report on Green Hydrogen Corridors, he said, “I noticed am amazed to see they missed to mention one of the biggest polluters that India has and which is producing cement. As the process to make cement for construction is significant in every country, if you convert that process you would significantly reduce pollution. Another major polluters are the airplanes that fly at 30,000 feet and the emission from these airplanes is a huge contributor to disturbing the ozone layer. There is no way a future Boeing 747 can fly powered by an onboard with a battery, hydrogen is the only option.”

Lauding Gadkari for promoting hydrogen fuel, he said, “They should not be limited to just Toyota but should invite others as pointed earlier Honda, and other companies and I am glad TATA is doing it. TATA, with the proper investment, can make hydrogen-powered trucks, this would greatly reduce future greenhouse gas emissions in India.”

However, he stressed, “Building refueling infrastructure has to go hand-in-hand with the production of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, otherwise this huge initiative taken by the Government of India would likely face significant risks.”