Electric Vehicles: Fuel cell tech the way to go

Electric Vehicles: Fuel cell tech the way to go

We are subsidising lithium ion- battery EVs when we should be developing hydrogen-based fuel cell battery EVs

Electric vehicles

Be it the Union government’s Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles (FAME) scheme, or the Karnataka Electric Vehicle and Energy Storage Policy 2017, there is a conscious attempt to cut the fuel import bill and arrest the impact of transportation on environment and climate change and instead encourage eco-friendliness, cheaper fuel costs and lower maintenance expenses.

On offer are incentives and concessions, including tax subsidies, to Electric Vehicle (EV) battery manufacturers, assemblers and the rest of the ecosystem, including manufacturers of charging infrastructure. Why only Karnataka, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal recently offered purchase incentives, such as concessions up to Rs 1.5 Lakh, for people buying EVs, which may be registered  without batteries now so that the EV become notionally cheaper. Not surprisingly, a Bloomberg report predicts that by 2040, EVs will comprise 31% of all cars on the road and make up 67% of municipal buses, 47% of two-wheeled vehicles and 24% of light commercial vehicles.

Unfortunately, what powers an electric vehicle is also its Achilles heel. Battery technology powering EVs limits its mass adoption. Lithium ion-based batteries that power vehicles today are costly, heavy and have limited life. Even lithium, the raw material needed to make these batteries, is limited. Some 65% of the world’s lithium reserves are in Bolivia and Chile, with most mines in these countries now  owned by China, which today has a commanding market lead and a near monopoly on lithium ion batteries. These batteries account for approximately 70% of the cost of electric two-wheelers and 50% of electric cars.

Sales of electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries have, however, increased 10-fold in the past five years, with future demand only projected to increase, even as China is firmly in the driver’s seat of this industry, enjoying 73% global lithium cell manufacturing capacity (the US, with only 12% of that capacity, is far behind in second place). Obviously, China is focused on controlling the world’s production of lithium ion batteries, with speculators ensuring that prices shoot skywards due to increased use of lithium ion batteries. As for mining for lithium, China ranks third, behind Australia and Chile, with production rates nearly 10 times that of the US. 

India, on the other hand, is one of the largest importers of lithium and lithium ion batteries in the world. Popular EV cars in India such as the Hyundai Kona, Mahindra E Verito and Tata Tigor EV are all equipped with lithium ion batteries. But what are the perils and pitfalls of continuing the way we are currently doing? Firstly, battery life is fixed, and batteries will eventually need replacement, arguably in 5-10 years’ time. Secondly, lithium is extremely toxic. When batteries are disposed of, lithium will leech into groundwater. How is India equipped to counter water poisoning that will invariably enter the food chain? Thirdly, the Indian government, despite the current anti-China phase, is indirectly enriching China by subsidizing EVs, given that India has no lithium and our dependence on China will be perpetual. 

So what should India do? Making hydrogen the final answer for clean fuel technology and to cut fossil fuel import bill, India should proceed towards Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs), powered by hydrogen, with no tailpipe emissions except water vapour and warm air. Undoubtedly, hydrogen infrastructure will need to be built as these are in early stages of implementation, but the same is true for lithium ion batteries as well.

Its use is uncommon in India, but hydrogen is a proven source for energy generators, US spacecraft, forklifts, German submarines and even hydrogen fuel cell golf carts built way back in 1965. Used as a fuel, hydrogen is highly efficient and leaves no carbon emissions behind. It is virtually everywhere -- water, plants, manure. Hydrogen binds to almost everything, so before it can be used it must be separated. Separation is done by steam reforming, gasification or electrolysis, three simple methods of producing hydrogen.

A flag-bearer of hydrogen cars, the Toyota Mirai Hydrogen EV is popular today. Highly energy efficient and rigorously tested, it uses a fuel cell system generating power by combining hydrogen with oxygen from the outside air, reducing vehicle CO2 emissions. Wider adoption of such hydrogen-powered fuel cell EVs will lead to reduced emissions of greenhouse gases, creating a better environment for all. Buying into clean energy doesn’t mean buying into the unknown.

Currently, hydrogen-based vehicles are perhaps not economical compared to the cars on the road today. Hydrogen is comparatively difficult to handle, hazardous in nature and it will be several years before hydrogen-based vehicles are launched in all sizes to develop an economical ecosystem, but this is true for the lithium battery EVs as well. Instead of subsidizing an ecosystem for lithium ion EVs, we urgently need to become aatmanirbhar in hydrogen, the least polluting fuel, non-toxic at disposal time, easy to produce and which does not require a perpetual dependence on China. By continuing to subsidize EVs with lithium, we are walking into China’s very smartly laid trap!

(The writer is a former director on the Board of BEML)