Long haul for Indian Army at the LAC and LOC : Here’s why fuel cells are viable option for power, fuel needs

Updated: Jul 22, 2020 1:17 PM

Once the glare of the media and many articulate strategic pundits shifts from the Galwan Valleyin Ladakh, to  more juicy  topics, the Indian army would still be there inlarger numbers doggedly doing their duty in harsh conditions,resolutely weathering the elements, in subzero temperatures with limited infrastructure.

Indian Army, Indian Army at LAC, Galwan Valley, Ladakh, ITBP, fuel cells, Siachen Glacier, India China border, latest news on indian armyA file photo of Zojila pass that is situated at an altitude of 11,578 feet on the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh National Highway |Photo Credit: PTI

By Lt Gen Sudhir Sharma

Once the glare of the media and many articulate strategic pundits shifts from the Galwan Valley in Ladakh, to  more juicy  topics, the Indian army would still be there in larger numbers doggedly doing their duty in harsh conditions, resolutely weathering the elements, in subzero temperatures with limited infrastructure. The casualties suffered and many lessons learnt, and re-learnt the hard way, has changed the deployment paradigm across the entire India China border for a long time!  Henceforth a much higher level of year-round deployment and combat readiness will be the new normal. So, from Siachen, Kargil to Arunachal Pradesh things may have gotten even tougher for the Indian Army. But as the old saying goes, ‘when the going gets tough the tough get going”. However, it is imperative for us to ensure that our brave troops facing the odds are well fed, well-armed and ready in body and spirit and not wanting for anything which will stand in their way to victory. In this context I can with considerable experience of the region, confidently say that meeting the power and energy needs, including Fuel for the Army and allied forces like the ITBP and Border Roads in this rugged ,icy cold and inhospitable terrain, is indeed the sine qua non for success.

Despite the ongoing negotiations with the Chinese which have made some progress with the commencement of gradual disengagement, India may not and should not pull back from its traditional and operationally relevant forward deployment posture along its Northern and Eastern borders. Pakistan in sync with China can no doubt be expected to continue  its mischief on the LOC to try and stretch the Indian Army on two fronts. Due to the extended borders the Indian Army has a very large number of posts running into hundreds which run the risk of being cutoff-in severe winter months along our Northern borders.It takes a colossal effort (by air, road, ponies & porters) to pre stock and maintain these positions for the winter at an extremely high cost to  men, machines and the exchequer.

This new challenge due to the enhanced deployment will also need additional habitat, winter clothing, rations, fuel and equipment to last the winters. This calls for a major logistical effort at a heavy additional cost not only in finances but also in the physical implementation of the complete supply chain and efficient inventory management.

Assured, autonomous, manpack, redeployable and reliable ‘Power’ is a major challenge high up in the mountains, which is further accentuated due to the extreme cold climate. My experience in dealing with this has been that we often give this a lower than desired priority, this impacts operational efficiency. In the modern and digital all-weather day and night battle field the energy needs are only going to increase. The Army, Border Roads and ITBP camps also need assured power for:

  • Basic Field electrification of the military posts/ camps (for lighting, basic amenities, computing systems etc.)
  • Battery Charging (of Surveillance Systems, Vehicles, Earth Moving Equipment, Communication Devices, Sensors etc.).
  • Power for Special Forces Operations, Long Range Patrols, Observation Posts

Grid power is almost nonexistent at the forward military posts.Solar power cannot be depended upon due to frequent cloud cover and it requires large surface area to install. Small windmills have also not been found to be very effective or reliable. The only source of power that sustains the armed forces is the cheap and readily available diesel generator sets (DG SETS). A closer analysis of these devices brings to fore up some facts like an upto 70% drop in power output in High Altitude, very high pollution levels, freezing of Fuel in winters, frequent breakdowns necessitating repairs, very high fuel consumption and an extremely costly supply chain of transportation logistics ( By Air, Vehicles, Ponies and Porters). The DG Sets are noisy and highly polluting devices. A large portion of the Himalayas in the higher reaches including the Siachen Glacier are turning into an environmental hotspots but these concerns are being addressed these days with alacrity.

Fuel cell powering a communication system in high altitude ; Source – https://www.fuelcellsystems.co.uk/category/case-study/

Armies from different countries are adopting Fuel Cells as a source of power for their forces. It is believed that the Indian Army, DRDO and Para Military Forces have also been experimenting and trying out Fuel Cells as an alternate source of power for their remote, off grid, high altitude and winter cut off camps/ posts for a few years now. Multiple field validations carried out by forces  over the four years have led to a conviction that the Fuel Cellscan be extremely useful in all types of terrain.

Their application has come a very long way since their inception, today they are versatile and cost effective if you compare the life cycle costs objectively. Fuel Cells are of different types and typically use Methanol, Hydrogen, Reformed Methanol, Solid Oxide as Fuel.The most common and widely used Fuel Cells are

A man portable Fuel Cell for special operations

Methanol and Hydrogen based systems and they have their pros & cons.A evaluation and research on Fuel Cells for the Armed & Security Forces suggest that they have the following advantages:-

  • Fuel Cells are a 24X7 All Weather – All Terrain Assured Power Source. If needed, Fuel Cells can run non-stop from a few days to a few weeks or more.
  • These are much lighter than DG Sets &have very low Fuel consumption rates.
  • These are intelligent (provide need-based power with option for remote control cum diagnostics) and easy to use systems.
  • Fuel Cells are a Clean Green Energy source.
  • They are ideal as a backup power source and work the best in a Hybrid Mode with Solar &wind.
  • The freezing point of Methanol is around minus 70 Degrees.
  • Methanol is cheaper then Diesel.

In the high altitude mountains  with the cold climates the Fuel Cells can be a game changer for the Army and the Para Military Forces due to their reliability, negligible maintenance, extremely low need for Fuel, easily transportable ( being so light) thereby leading to substantially reduced need for Fuel ( 5 to 8 times less). In the same manner the effort and cost in terms of transportation and logistics also goes down leading to huge savings &reduced time for winter stocking.

With so much going for the Fuel Cell the slow pace of introducing them could due to some of their perceived shortcomings, an incomplete understanding of how to mitigate these and seeing their overall life cycle benefits. Some aspects which need consideration and imaginative solutions are;

While Hydrogen Fuel Cells can belt out high power & are a very clean source of power, but probably what holds back the Defense organisations  from taking a call on Hydrogen Fuel Cells is the  complex Infrastructure related to Hydrogen Fuel & Its storage cylinders, the safety issues related to transporting, storing &handling Hydrogen and the comparatively  higher running cost of Hydrogen. Hydrogen Fuel Cells can be a very good source of power at large static locations having good Infra.

Solid Oxide Fuel Cells generate very high power but they work at temperatures exceeding 800 degrees and need a very complex and elaborate infrastructure set up. They are ideally suited for large complexes that need high amounts of power( > 100 Kilowatts).

Methanol based Fuel Cells cost 8 to 10 times more than the conventional Generator sets.This disadvantage is offset by the low maintenance costs, extremely low operating costs ( Methanol is cheaper than Diesel) and fuel consumption rate  is 5 to 8 times lesser than similar use conventional generators sets and lastly all this this leads to massive savings in the cost of fuel transportation and storage in remote places). Methanol Fuel Cells become cheaper than similar use generator sets in less than two years of a life time when used in high altitude areas, in places supplied by air, it can be become cheaper in less than 8 months which is a massive advantage.

With the challenges for India along the Indo-Pak Border high up in the Himalayas increasing substantially this year, this is the right time for the Army, Border Roads, ITBP and SSB to consider Fuel Cells as an alternate source of back up power ensure 24X7 assured reliability and major logistical advantages including savings.

To be a modern, motivated, well armed and well trained army we need to ensure that our forces get the best possible assets to make it a winning war fighting machine. A robust logistical supply chain with a state of the art assured power supply in the form of Fuel Cells would be a step in the right direction as we need to find solutions for reliable power while cutting the massive recurring costs. Jai Hind

A highly decorated 3 star veteran, the author is retired from the Indian Army as the Quarter Master General. He has commanded an infantry division in the Chamb Sector as also one of the world largest Corps along the LOC in J&K. The author has been India’s Defence Advisor in London. He is currently the Chairman of MitKat Advisory Services, a premium international risk management consultancy. Views expressed are personal

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