Energy Conservation in India and in China

When I moved to the US from Japan in 1963, there were essentially no cars in Japan; I was hit three times by cars my first year in the US because they move faster than bicycles.

The transition to the automobile age separates the population into two categories - the quick and the dead.

Having watched the Japanese automobile business grow from nothing to a world-beater and watched the US economy nearly strangle from pollution and the high price of oil imports, it saddens me to see China and India heading down the same road.  It saddens me even more given that there are alternatives if someone makes some decisions.

I have a friend who runs an energy think tank in Tokyo.  Japanese energy consumption per capita is about half US consumption.  He points out that Chinese people want air conditioning and automobiles as much as Americans do and that the Chinese are earning the money to pay for them.  There are 4 times as many Chinese as Americans.  Even if the Chinese end up as efficient as the Japanese, that's 2 US equivalents worth of energy demand coming on stream over the next 15-20 years.

This doesn't count India which has 3 times the US population.  India originated the phrase, "Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon day sun;" Indians want air conditioned cars as badly as Americans and Chinese do.

China can't take the same path into the automotive age that we did, there simply isn't enough petroleum available in the entire world.  My Japanese friend assures me that the alternative discussed below is technically feasible, but politically difficult.

Automobile Fuel

China and India are adopting personal automobiles.  If they follow our path, each country will put itself in a position of its entire economy being vulnerable to interruption of its oil supplies.  Since neither country has a petroleum-based infrastructure in place, at least not compared to what they will need as they enter the automobile age in a big way, it would be advantageous for both countries to switch immediately to hydrogen for powering automobiles and small trucks.

Both countries have nuclear capabilities; both could set up nuclear electric plants which would generate hydrogen during off-peak hours and run the nuke plants at constant load.  Running at constant load maximizes efficiency and minimizes cost.

Someone would have to establish standards for interchangeable hydrogen cylinders, say, 3 sizes for small, medium, and large cars. Each car would come with one cylinder which would entitle the owner to go to a station, have his tank taken out, weighed, and a full one put in; he would pay the difference.  The tanks would incorporate a pressure reduction system so that all piping in the car would be low pressure.  The tank would shut off automatically if the pipe in the car ruptured.

Empty cylinders go back to the generating station to be inspected and refilled; there would be very few places handling high-pressure hydrogen. Nuke plants have a lot of safety in place anyway, so that is a good cultural climate for handling high-pressure hydrogen. tells how this works.  Blue Rhino drops filled propane cylinders at many locations; customers swap cylinders.  Empties are returned to a central place for refill.  This is much safer than having a lot of places where cylinders are filled.

We in the US know how bad automobile pollution is and we know how miserable it is to depend on overseas energy sources.  China or India could pioneer this technology, avoid pollution and dependence, and sell it to the rest of the world.

The US government is too heavily influenced by the oil business and anti-nuclear activists to do anything that bold, but the Pacific Rim could avoid pollution and dependence.  A pollution-free automobile would not need any of the pollution prevention add-ons we use in the US and Europe so would be cheaper anyway. 

A hydrogen-based transportation system would make it possible to store electricity.  One of the reasons electricity is so expensive is that there is no way to store it.  Being able to run plants flat out and store the excess as hydrogen would save money all over the world.

By the way, hybrid automobiles are no solution for either country.  Hybrids are no better then diesels on long hauls, cut petroleum use by 50% at best, and cost a lot more to make because they need gasoline engines, electric motors and exotic batteries.  If we just burn the hydrogen in a simple 2-stroke, fuel-injected engine, cost goes down and pollution goes to zero.

People forget how many resources are used in making cars including transportation, refining raw materials, manufacturing, etc.  Greens won't admit that it takes so much electricity to refine the aluminum used in wind turbines that few turbines ever give back as much electricity as they cost to make.  The electricity is in a different place, to be sure, so you save on transmission, but still...

How To Get There

We need an "open source" engineering project which is managed somewhat like the Wikipedia ( ).

If engineering students would contribute ideas on, say, the design of the hydrogen tank, the pressure regulation system, and the quick-disconnect valves, another group could work on how a low-cost car would use hydrogen, what sorts of low-pressure piping would be needed, whether the engine should be in front or in back, where the tank should go for maximum safety based on collision records, how to wrap metal around the tank to protect it, etc.

Others could look into how to get hydrogen out of water at a nuke plant and / or solar installation.  Given a cheap way to transport energy in the form of hydrogen, solar arrays could be put far out in the desert.

This need not be an India-only or China-only project; there are imaginative engineering students all over the world.  There are nuclear engineers all over the world, and construction engineers, construction people could help discuss how to build the hydrogen facility onto a nuke plant and do cost estimates

We need software simulations to estimate demand and to calculate where to put cylinder swapping stations, etc.  There are trade-offs between energy loss in transmission wires from the nuke plant to a distant hydrogen generation facility versus transporting the cylinders after they are filled, for example.

Open source software groups produce very good software.  "Open source engineering" can do very good engineering, but someone would have to start the project, write the goal statement, enforce the community rules as at the Wikipedia, and try to get people to contribute.

Someone would have to set up topics, as in chemistry, high-pressure systems, tank, simulation, construction, etc., and try to get different professors, engineers, people, whomever, to take charge of each topic.  A topic might be too big for one group and it might get divided as we go along.

Maybe Tata Motors would contribute server spaced and some publicity.  A contest for best top-level paper?  A prize for best economic analysis?   Does anyone know any big business guys who might want some favorable publicity?  Payoff would be a long time coming; this is not a usual venture capital investment.

Is this thought interesting?  Could we find a university professor who would assign this as an engineering project for his students?  Getting a conversation going among young engineering students who are more flexible in their thinking might be a good way to start.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments

I recently visited India, and have two things to erport on their addaptation to the automoble age.

First, the bad news: traffic has become simply unbearable.  When I lived there, I could drive my VW from my in-laws house in the Girgaum district of downtown Bombay to the northern inner suburb of Bandra in about 30 minutes.  Now, it minimally takes 1 1/2 hours, and on one occasion took 3, when we ran into a festival on the way.

Second, the good news: the Indians actually are using a system for their taxis which is similar to the one suggested by Offfensicht.  More and more of the taxis run on liquified natural gas.  When they run low on fuel, they pull into a stationl, and the attendant attaches a device to the large pressue tank in the car.  Whoosh! it goes, and in a moment the tank is filled.

The object is  to reduce pollution, and it probably helps.  It is also a good start on alternative fuel use, since taxis make up a greater percentage of automobile traffic in India than they do here in the US.

October 8, 2007 8:10 PM

Sandia Laboratories has a team working on storing hydrogen and on burning it efficiently in an automobile engine.

That page has a number of links to other energy-related stories.  Storing hydrogen for automobile engines is a big problem, but they're working on it.  Think how much faster they could progress if engineers all over the world were thinking about the problem and helping out!

November 2, 2007 7:30 PM
Producing hydrogen, compressing hydrogen, and transporting hydrogen all work against the system efficiency. If you had localized hydrogen production then the decrease in transportation losses exceeds the increase in inefficiencies of scale, but it would still be pretty bad.

Using nuclear power for high-temp electrolysis produce hydrogen is between 25-40% efficient, and otto-cycle engines top-out at around 25% efficient. Ignoring losses due to compression (Which varies greatly based on how much the hydrogen is compressed, but is hardly an insignificant cost), you still wind-up with something that's no more than 10% efficient *at best*. If you actually WANTED to use a two-stroke engine for some inexplicable reason, system efficiency would drop like a rock.

By contrast, battery storage technology is almost always better than 60% efficient. Some technologies (LiIon/LiPoly) are more than 99% efficient, others (VRFB/PbAcid) are very cheap to produce and easy to recycle with +75% efficiencies, not to mention ultracapacitors. Electrical motors are +90% efficient (And unlike combustion motors, don't have a drastic efficiency drop outside of their ideal RPM range).
An electric car would be at least 67% efficient, but could be as high as 95% efficient depending on the parts used.

This is why hydrogen is an inferior technology. It would take LESS research for batteries to charge fast enough and have a long enough lifespan to make them viable than it would take to solve the problems that hydrogen brings with it. This is aside from the other benefits of improved battery technology.
Even then, look at the end goals - +67% efficiency with current technology vs 10% efficiency with technology that hasn't been invented yet? Yea, real contest there...
January 28, 2008 2:38 PM
Efficiency is important, to be sure, but it is not the only consideration. It's also important to consider the energy required to make the batteries - exotic batteries take a lot of energy to make - the total amount the batteries can store which limits vehicle range, and the cost and risks of disposing of what's left over after the batteries wear out.

Hydrogen generation is getting more efficient. Shouldn't we research pretty much all plausible avenues?
January 29, 2008 4:20 PM
Progress occurs. Storing the hydrogen has always
been a major problem if you want to have a hydrogen-powered car, this may fix part of that problem. Of course, the other big problem is where to GET the hydrogen, but that, too, can be dealt with.
October 7, 2008 2:09 PM
I Require Easy on Study of Energy Consumption & Conversation in my school.
December 22, 2008 3:38 AM
I agree with puckasahib that the traffic situation in India has worsened consideradbly. roads are just not safe anymore. that was one of the prime factors that led the TATA's to develop Nano. since its small and light, it also has a very high fuel mileage. if their plans of developing a hybrid go through and if consumer adoption is high, this might elevate some of the problems. though hydrogen tech is a lil far away, hybrid tech is being looked at serisouly. I agree that we have brilliant engineer and tons of talent around the world, and TATA can even provide the resources and support required to run the project. but lets face it, the economy is bad, sales are at an all time low and they just posted a loss in the last quarter. what we really need is a push from the government. the new congress seems to be making bold moves in its latest budget and some lobbying from domestic and internation groups may just get this initiative moving forward
July 3, 2009 2:12 AM
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