India's fuel cell project fuels controversy

Tuesday, 30 September 2008, 07:00 Hrs   |    3 Comments
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Bangalore:A fuel cell is a device that in principle operates like a battery, combining hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity without causing pollution.

Indian scientists have already spent nearly 360 million - and have been promised another 350 million - but a home grown fuel-cell remains elusive despite time and cost overruns.

The grandiose project was initiated by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) under its New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI) in April 2001.

Five CSIR labs, led by the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) in Pune, teamed up with three companies to develop indigenous technology for fuel cells capable of supplying 5 KW of power initially and raising it to 25 KW.

But what was proclaimed to be a unique "public private partnership" failed to deliver a tangible device by the time the first phase of the project ended in June 2008.

The project has now been extended till 2012 with fresh funding of 350 million - more than a third of which is in foreign exchange.

"The research in this area has suffered considerably despite the fact that this is the third or fourth major investment (by CSIR)," a fuel cell expert who has been following the progress of the Indian project told IANS, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"By now, India should have come out successful," he added, blaming the failure on the absence of a clear objective, like in China, and "lack of coordination among the participating institutions and even among groups within an institution".

China launched its $18 million three-year project in 2002 with the clear-cut objective of having fuel cell-powered vehicles before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Its scientists achieved the goal.

Shanghai city that will host the World Expo in 2010 intends to deploy fuel cell buses for the event and expects to see about 10,000 such vehicles on the road by 2012. Taiwan last month joined the club of nations with fuel-cell technology.

Although NMITLI stands for "technology innovation", the participating CSIR labs were doing mostly reverse engineering by importing commercially available fuel cells and trying to duplicate the technology, the anonymous source told IANS.

The NCL imported two 5 KW fuel cell power packs from Canada's Ballard Corporation but reverse engineering efforts failed to deliver a product "anything even near to the Ballard stack," the source pointed out.

Yogeswara Rao, the head of the NMITLI projects, said that scientists have so far been able to demonstrate a 1 KW fuel cell that they assembled using an imported polymer electrolyte membrane - a component that is the heart of the fuel cell. He said the polymer membrane and other parts of the fuel cell have also been developed indigenously and are being "evaluated".

NCL director Swaminathan Sivaram, however, sounded optimistic about the project, saying that the fuel cell technology "is a still unmet scientific challenge globally".

"There are a few material and design challenges that we are still working on in terms of cost reduction," Sivaram told IANS. He declared that the Indian programme "is marching ahead" though he did not say at what cost.

However, the anonymous source said the Indian project is not taking off because it relies on the polymer electrolyte membrane that is the monopoly of DuPont Corporation of the US.

Secondly, the creation of hydrogen infrastructure that is necessary for putting the fuel cells to use will take generations in India if one goes by the Delhi exercise of CNG (compressed natural gas)-powered vehicles that could not be replicated in other metros, the source added.

The more feasible fuel cell for India, the source maintained, could be the one that can directly use methanol - instead of having to convert it to hydrogen - since it can use the available infrastructure in the transport sector.

"Petrol tanks can become methanol tanks but hydrogen cannot be stored like that," the source pointed out.

The eight-year NMITLI project may not have yielded an indigenous fuel cell prototype yet, but it is sure to be keeping foreign equipment manufacturers happy.

For instance, almost half of the 350 million sanctioned for the second phase of the project has been earmarked for expensive equipment, some of which has been ordered more than once.

The NCL, which purchased a fuel cell test station for 6 million during the first phase of the project, is buying a second one even as a third identical station also exists at its sister lab at Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu's Sivaganga district.

The test station is meant for evaluating the performance of the complete fuel cell power packs.
Source: IANS
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