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  Hydrogen power for India’s villages?

John Norris is an Englishman now living in the USA. He is an Indophile. He is also one of GoodNewsIndia’s earliest admirers and supporters. John keeps forwarding ideas that might be appropriate for India. He is a qualified mechanical and computer engineer too. So, when he wrote suggesting hydrogen based autonomous power for rural India, one knew he would have vetted the concept. What John has sent is indeed a usable bundle of information.

First off, let us admit hydrogen generation as of today is a high technology business. Interest in it is sustained because many believe that the cleanest non-polluting fuel of the future would be hydrogen. It burns by combining with oxygen to generate energy and the by product is pure water. In simple terms that is the attraction.

But the hard part is to be able to produce hydrogen competitively and handle it safely. Currently it is produced in advanced plants by reformation of natural gas or gasification of coal. Storage is with advanced technologies using metal hydrides. Millions of dollars have rolled in for many years and yet a deployable hydrogen economy is nowhere near ready. The system bristles with technology road blocks.

Amidst all this, John Norris reports the exciting work of a team led by Ms. Suellen A. Van Ooeteghem and five others at the National Energy Centre at Morgantown, WV. The team has discovered a natural, low cost, environmentally benign, low technology method of producing hydrogen using a widely occurring bacteria known as Thermotoga neapolitana. The team found that in bio-reactors similar to those used in wineries these bacteria produces copious quantities of hydrogen.

John has sent a link from where an informative interview with Van Ooetegham can be heard [ click here . Real Audio Player required. These audio files may be available only for another month. After that time search Google with these keywords: Thermotoga neapolitana, hydrogen, Van Ooetegham].

What emerges is an exciting option for India. The bacteria is widely found. The feed-stock to keep them producing needs to be a glucose centred waste; so sugar cane, beet and starch based agricultural waste can be used. Sanitary and sewage wastes may be converted to hydrogen too. The strategy is not to bother with storage of hydrogen but to lead the generated gas into small fuel cells to generate electricity that would be convivial and environmentally benign. These would be truly autonomous locally sustained systems doing away with power lines and losses. There are other synergies too. One of the problems with fuel cells is the excessive heat they generate, resulting in just 40% efficiency. It so happens the Van Oetegham process requires the bio-reactor to be kept at 75 deg.C so the fuel cell heat can be put to use raising overall efficiency. Also this requirement can be made to serve as a switch: lower the temperature and production stops, raise it and the bacteria kick in again.

The piece-de-resistance for India is the financial scale of things. For six years now the Van Oetegham team has been working on an annual budget of just $150,000 a year and a team of six. She believes that with just $2 million and four years the whole idea of naturally generated hydrogen can go industrial scale. It is widely believed that in India where comparable skills are available, costs are usually a third of what they are in the West. So these are sums of money many Indians can come up with.

The Van Ooetegham discovery seems precisely targeted at India.