Smog Towers, Hydrogen To Combat Toxic Air In World’s Most Polluted City

As the Indian capital – New Delhi’s air pollution levels shot through the roof on November 13, the second severe pollution spike this month, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to explore two emergency solutions: hydrogen-based fuel for the city’s transport system and setting up giant smog towers to help purify the air in a 10-km radius.

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Supreme court judges Ranjan Gogoi and SA Bobde told The Guardian that the Indian government and other stakeholders had made little constructive efforts to find solutions to the problem. “The whole of [Northern India] is suffering from the issue of air pollution,” the Supreme Court judges said.

The Supreme Court had asked the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) last June to look into the use of hydrogen-fuelled buses to reduce air pollution in Delhi. The EPCA held consultations with experts, including Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL)’s R&D Centre and Tata Motors, which had deployed the first hydrogen fuel cell.

The EPCA in its report no 88 for SC had highlighted that hydrogen cell buses were in a nascent stage, with Tata Motors developing two prototypes for Delhi and Faridabad.

Hydrogen as a fuel has long been touted as an almost magical solution to air pollution crisis. The only by-product or emission that results from the usage of hydrogen fuel is water — making the fuel 100 per cent clean.

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Globally, 70 million tonnes of hydrogen fuel is produced and nearly all of it is consumed by different industries. Hydrogen-fuelled vehicles are already in use across multiple sectors around the world.

In many Scandinavian countries, as well as the UK, public buses have been running on hydrogen for a few years. There are three hydrogen cars in the market — the Toyota Mirai, the Hyundai Nexo and the Honda Clarity.

China uses hydrogen fuel cell-powered trams while Germany runs hydrogen-trains. Hydrogen is used in bikes, cycles, scooters, trucks, aeroplanes and most other forms of transportation. NASA even launched space shuttles using hydrogen fuel.

No permits from the ministry of transport, BIS specifications and Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) regulations exist for hydrogen fuel in India. The cost of production of hydrogen (as of 2018) using naphtha fuel from the Panipat refinery in India is $ 4-5/kg, but the delivered cost including infrastructure is expected to be around $12/kg, comparable to global costs that range from $14 in US to $12 in Europe, and $8 in Japan.

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“Hydrogen is not competitive with conventional fuels (1 kg of hydrogen is equal to roughly 3.8 litres of petrol)”, the report had stressed, pitching for H-CNG instead.

“We do not have a prototype as of now but can definitely develop it when needed. The one in Beijing hasn’t been very successful in curbing ambient air pollution but it definitely reduces concentrations.

Prototype will depend on what kind of range we are expecting. These towers can run on electrical power as solar isn’t very effective in winter. Depending on the amount of air it sucks in, such towers could cost anywhere between Rs 2 and Rs 5 crore,” said Rakesh Kumar, Director, CSIR-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute.

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NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute) has deployed over 50 Wayu air purifiers for Delhi’s traffic junctions but a study on the effectiveness is yet to be published. These filters work like vacuum cleaners and cause some turbulence to disperse pollutants. They are effective only in a 20-30m radius.

“Every scientist I know has repeatedly pointed out that outdoor air purifiers will achieve very little. There is no alternative to tackling each of the emission sources systematically year-round,” said Santosh Harish, fellow at Centre for Policy Research.