Sunday, February 12, 2012

IIT-Delhi scientists develop autos that run on hydrogen; cause negligible pollution

It's the main fuel of NASA's space shuttle launchers and will now power a test fleet of autos in the city. Hydrogen, so far used terrestrially in some avant-garde customized cars and experimental bus fleets, will run 15 auto rickshaws developed as part of an Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi (IIT-D) project. But unlike London's hydrogen buses and California's Hydrogen Highway project that use complicated fuel-cell technology, the Delhi autos will be built around cheaper internal combustion engines.

Professor LM Das of IIT-D, who has perfected the technology, explains the rationale for hydrogen power: "Hydrogen is like a slightly temperamental child. You need to tame it. Once controlled, it can be much more efficient than even compressed natural gas (CNG)". Das says he conceived the idea of using compressed hydrogen as an automotive fuel with Delhi's air pollution in mind. In the early '80s, it was a bold initiative - an idea ahead of its time. Lay acquaintances thought he was talking about making a hydrogen bomb. Detractors in the scientific community dismissed his research as a freak project.

But Das soldiered on alone over the next three decades as associates came and went. "No one can turn a blind eye to the environmental degradation caused by vehicles. In fact, before CNG came, Delhi had become unlivable.
So, despite all the criticism that my research was too futuristic, I pursued it. Now the world knows that aggressive steps are required to mitigate the environmental damage that has been done," he says.

Unlike petroleum-derived hydrocarbon fuels, pure hydrogen does not produce toxic carbon monoxide or the heat-trapping carbon dioxide on combustion. There are no oxides of sulphur, nor any particulates. Water vapour and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) are the only byproducts. Although NOx is a pollutant, Das claims their engine has been optimized to reduce its emission greatly. "We got the best efficiency and very low emissions," he says.

As a member of the government-appointed core group on automotive research, Das had worked on a hydrogen fuel assignment from United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the International Centre for Hydrogen Energy Technologies (UNIDO-ICHET) based in Istanbul, in 2006. Over the next three years, the engines were developed at IIT. A conventional CNG engine was used with modifications for compressed hydrogen gas. While the project at IIT-D's Department of Energy Studies resembled a turnstile, one man alone stayed on with Das - lab technician GP Singh.

The 14-member team stabilized after the project was officially taken over by automobile firm Mahindra that has built up a strong presence in alternative energy with hybrid and electric vehicles. The new system was implemented on autos provided by the company and trials were done inside the IIT campus. Apart from developing the autos - branded Mahindra HyAlfa and shown to the public at last month's Auto Expo - Das' team is also working on two hydrogen-fuelled minibuses with a 2014 deadline.

Senior project scientist, GP Subhash, who quit his job at the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies to join Das, says the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) is keen on developing a hydrogen-run minibus. "The Rs. 150-million project aims to develop two mini buses by 2014. The idea will take some time to be part of our daily lives. But we are at it to prove the efficiency of hydrogen fuel," he says. Meanwhile, the HyAlfa, which resembles Mahindra's Alfa autos commonly seen in NCR towns, awaits its commercial launch and will be the first mass-produced hydrogen-run internal combustion engine vehicle in the world.

Source: The Economic Times (Online Edition), February 12, 2012

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