Prime Minister (PM) Pushpa Kamal Dahal's intriguing aspiration to experience a hydrogen-powered car really caught my attention. It made me question the legitimacy of his remarks. Did he really mean it or just said it to boost his popularity? It also shed some light on how unbeknown Nepali population is in regards to hydrogen. Even though hydrogen has a storied history as an energy source dating back to 1804, Nepal has seldom used it. So, it is common for most Nepali to view hydrogen as new source of energy. So let me shed dome light on how hydrogen is produced, what are its application, how population around the world are using hydrogen as a source of energy and how we as a nation can capitalize on its potential.
There are numerous ways of producing hydrogen. The most common process to produce hydrogen is through a process called steam methane reforming (SMR), which involves the reaction of natural gas with steam to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 produced is typically released into the atmosphere, making this process environmentally unfriendly. The hydrogen produced in this process are called gray or blue hydrogen.
The other process of producing hydrogen is through a process called electrolysis, where water is split into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity, typically sourced from renewable energy sources like wind, solar, or hydropower. Hydrogen produced through this process is considered the cleanest form of hydrogen because it produces no carbon emissions during its production. This way of production of hydrogen is what we are focusing on in Nepal. There are other emerging methods of hydrogen production, such as thermolysis, biomass gasification, and high-temperature electrolysis. These technologies are still in the development and experimental stages but hold promise for clean hydrogen production. To put this in perspective, around 47% of the global hydrogen production is from natural gas, 27% from coal, 22% from oil (as a by-product) and only around 4% comes from electrolysis.
The largest producer of hydrogen in the world can vary depending on the type of hydrogen produced. Historically, the United States and China have been the largest producers of hydrogen overall, mainly gray hydrogen. However, as the world shifts toward cleaner energy sources, countries with strong commitments to green hydrogen, like Germany and Norway, are becoming significant players in the hydrogen market.
Hydrogen has many applications. Traditionally hydrogen has been used for years in production of ammonia, oil refining, and the manufacturing of semiconductors. Due to increase in demand for clean energy production where green hydrogen can be used, nowadays hydrogen is also used in transportation, energy storage, and power generation. Efforts are also underway to use hydrogen for residential cooking and heating. As the world seeks to reduce carbon emissions and embrace cleaner energy solutions, hydrogen continues to play an increasingly critical role in various sectors, with ongoing research and development promising further diversification of its applications in the future.
Nepal stands at the brink of an exciting and transformative journey in the realm of energy production and utilization. The country boasts a significant advantage: it possesses abundant hydroelectric potential, while concurrently lacking reserves of coal, oil, or natural gas. This unique energy landscape makes Nepal exceptionally well-suited for development of clean hydrogen production.
Hydroelectricity is Nepal's forte, and it constitutes a primary source of power generation in the nation. However, the intermittent nature of hydroelectric energy production has presented challenges. Nepal's hydroelectricity primarily relies on the flow of water, leading to a fluctuating supply of electricity. During periods of elevated water levels, energy production surges, but it dwindles when water levels recede. Consequently, a considerable portion of generated energy often goes to waste. Moreover, during the nighttime, when energy demand is considerably lower, an excess of energy remains underutilized.
In light of these challenges, green hydrogen production emerges as a promising solution to harness the untapped potential of Nepal's renewable energy resources. By utilizing surplus electricity during periods of abundance and in off-peak hours, green hydrogen production presents a means to capture and store this excess energy efficiently. Green hydrogen can subsequently be employed in a diverse range of applications, including transportation, industrial processes, and energy storage, thus maximizing the utility of Nepal's hydroelectric capacity and promoting sustainability within the nation's energy sector. The convergence of abundant hydroelectricity and the potential for green hydrogen production positions Nepal at the forefront of the global clean energy transition.
To catalyze a successful transition toward hydrogen-based energy utilization, Nepal's focus should predominantly shift toward the development of hydrogen production, packaging, and transportation infrastructure, rather than primarily investing in research of its direct applications in cooking , heating and other purpose. Redirecting resources toward infrastructure development is imperative, as it lays the essential foundation for harnessing the nation's existing hydroelectric potential for green hydrogen production. The current allocation of funds by scholars and researchers into the application of hydrogen for cooking and heating, while important, may be more effective when complemented by a strategic emphasis on infrastructure. This approach ensures that, when applications for hydrogen emerge, Nepal will have the means to self-sufficiently produce, store, and transport hydrogen, reducing dependency on other nations for this valuable energy source.
In order to bring PM Dahal's visionary aspirations to fruition, Nepal should wholeheartedly commit to clean hydrogen production and explore the possibilities of exporting this invaluable resource to neighboring countries, including India. India's current demand for hydrogen, which stands at approximately 6 million tons per annum, offers a promising market that Nepal should promptly leverage. With this immense untapped potential, Nepal can position itself as a significant hydrogen producer. Who knows may be one day our government will be thinking about constructing a gas pipeline from Nepal to India or even Bangladesh for the supply of clean hydrogen instead of constructing pipelines for the import of oil and natural gas. This paradigm shift aligns with a sustainable future, offering energy self-reliance and reducing dependence on foreign energy sources. And by the time our PM will be riding a hydrogen-powered vehicle, he can refuel his vehicle with domestically established hydrogen refueling station rather than using imported gray hydrogen from other countries.
(The author holds an engineering degree from USA , and is an energy entrepreneur currently working in clean energy and mobility sector in Nepal)