Electrolyzers – the key to India’s green ambitions

In an exclusive interview with Mr. Prasanta Sarkar, Co-founder & CEO of Newtrace, IBT explored the origins of their revolutionary electrolyzer technology and its impact on the green hydrogen landscape.

Mr. Sarkar provides insights into the inspiration behind establishing Newtrace, the distinctive features of their electrolyzer technology driving lower capex costs for green hydrogen production. He provided insights on the market response, real-world applications, future aspirations, and also shared his recommendations for government support in uplifting the green hydrogen industry. 

Prasanta Sarkar; green hydrogen

Image Source: Newtrace

IBT: What inspired you to establish Newtrace and how did the idea for the revolutionary electrolyzer technology come about? 

Prasanta Sarkar: Certainly, much of it stems from the backgrounds of Newtrace’s founders, Rochan and myself. Returning to India in 2021 after nearly a decade in Europe, we had heightened awareness about the urgency of climate change action. Recognizing the need for immediate solutions and aiming to contribute to societal well-being, we identified energy security as pivotal for equitable development. Surveying the changing climate and emission landscape, we noticed a dearth of solutions for large-scale industries to decarbonize their operations. While electric vehicles were a focus, the primary contributors to emissions lacked ample options. We discerned green hydrogen’s potential in this context, recognizing the lack of cost-effective technologies for its production. Consequently, we chose to remain in India’s burgeoning startup environment and spearhead the transition of industries and mobility sectors towards cleaner, sustainable energy sources.

IBT: Could you elaborate on the key features and advantages of the electrolyzer technology that enables green hydrogen production at significantly lower apex cost?

Prasanta Sarkar:  I think one of the first things to understand is that India produces about 5 million tons of hydrogen, and globally it’s about 100 million tons of hydrogen. And this hydrogen primarily comes from fossil fuel, natural gas. And there are two critical problems there. One is the import, which is basically the supply and the cost of natural gas, which is a fossil fuel. And the second is basically the billion tons of CO2 emission which is involved in the whole hydrogen production. Now essentially all the process of producing green hydrogen is an alternative to fossil fuel hydrogen. Electrolyzer is one of the most promising technologies and is kind of breaking down water into its constituent molecules of oxygen and hydrogen using renewable electricity.

Now what we essentially do is look into the whole process of splitting water into its constituent from the first principles and design stacks which do not use any rarer metal, do not use any critical component yet split water efficiently into oxygen and hydrogen and separates the gases into the stack itself. All of this is done in a very modular and differentiated process in such a way that we do not have to rely on the import of any critical component or rare earth metal.

IBT: How has the market responded to Newtrace’s modular and scalable electrolyzer system, and what specific applications or industries have shown the most interest in adopting your technology?

Prasanta Sarkar: Indeed, the technology landscape both within India and globally predominantly features electrolyzers hailing from the US and Europe. However, these machines come at a significant cost, rendering the production of green hydrogen financially demanding. Despite the cost implications, customers are left with limited choices due to the absence of alternative technologies. This backdrop propelled us, as one of four global companies, to embark on the mission of developing a differentiated technology solution—one that addresses scalability and cost-effectiveness for green hydrogen production without overcomplicating the technology itself.

The market has exhibited remarkable receptiveness to our technology development efforts. An important facet to consider is our comprehensive approach, wherein we meticulously build the technology from scratch, moving from small-scale proof of concept to the expansion of larger systems within an expedited two-year timeframe—a rapid progression in the sphere of product development.

In terms of sector engagement, we’ve established collaboration with leading entities operating in sectors heavily reliant on fossil fuel consumption. These entities, especially those within the oil and gas domain and public sector refineries, seek avenues to transition from fossil fuel-based hydrogen to green hydrogen, driven by the imperative to decarbonize their processes and secure relevance for the coming decades. Additionally, emerging sectors like long-haul mobility and transportation processes are displaying pronounced interest. These sectors, historically reliant on fossil fuels or coal, are exploring alternative fuels for their operations.

While the reception of our technology has been overwhelmingly positive, the industry’s scalability demands present an ongoing challenge. We’ve garnered early support from visionary supporters who comprehend the intricacies of scaling up products, understanding that volumes will naturally expand as we progress along our journey.

IBT: Being a startup, the initial years of establishing Newtrace undoubtedly posed a multitude of challenges. Could you shed light on the hurdles encountered during the development and commercialization of the electrolyzer technology and the strategies employed to surmount them?

Prasanta Sarkar: Absolutely, the journey of a deep tech startup, especially in the climate tech domain, in India is far from straightforward. The Indian startup landscape predominantly gravitates toward consumer-facing ventures or Software as a Service (SaaS) enterprises due to their shorter revenue paths and faster outcomes. However, our trajectory diverged significantly as we ventured into the realm of hardware production—a pursuit demanding ample space and substantial capital even for the initial proof of concept or pilot phase.

Embarking on this path, we confronted the challenge of accessing resources and funding requisite for constructing our inaugural prototype. Fortuitously, we discovered support in the form of Professor Satya Chakravarti at IIT Madras. Additionally, we secured early investments from Speciale and the Micelio Fund. These backers believed in our nascent aspirations, buoyed by a small-scale prototype and our unwavering vision. This bolstered us to advance and scale our technological endeavours.

Another pressing challenge within the Indian ecosystem pertained to securing a talent pool adept at crafting cutting-edge technology. Regrettably, India has historically underinvested in pioneering technology, resulting in a scarcity of specialized talent. Such individuals are often lured by opportunities abroad. To navigate this predicament, we adopted an innovative approach. We began scouting for talent engaged in subsidiary industries—individuals who were not initially aligned with hydrogen or electrolyzer technologies but were forging groundbreaking paths in other sectors. Additionally, we extended our reach to academic circles, identifying researchers who previously envisioned a career centered around academia and research paper publication. By providing them an avenue to channel their expertise and contribute to our technological advancements, we managed to harness a critical talent pool.

These strategic approaches have significantly contributed to the measured success we’ve achieved thus far. Despite the formidable challenges, our commitment to innovation and sustainable energy solutions has propelled Newtrace forward.

IBT: Can you share any success stories of how your product has been deployed in practical application and its impact on achieving sustainable energy goals? 

Prasanta Sarkar: We’ve collaborated with a leading refinery that previously relied on natural gas for hydrogen production, resulting in significant CO2 emissions. By adopting our electrolyzers, they’ve embarked on a path to decarbonize their hydrogen production, minimizing their carbon footprint. Another ongoing project involves integrating our electrolyzers with fuel cells for a variety of applications. This setup has potential uses in long-haul transportation, providing backup power for data centers and telecom towers, and supplying off-grid power for remote defense and space research setups. These cases reflect our technology’s adaptability and its real-world impact in driving sustainable energy practices. The support from early adopters has been instrumental in turning our vision into tangible achievements.

Watch the exclusive interview:

IBT: What is your vision for the future of Newtrace when it comes to the global green hydrogen market and how do you plan to stay ahead in this rapidly evolving market? 

Prasanta Sarkar: Much of the electrolyzer technology for green hydrogen originates from Europe and the US, where many well-capitalized companies are also active. However, our standout factor lies in our team’s rapid execution of our vision. Speed is our competitive edge, essential for showcasing and scaling our technology. What sets us apart significantly is our ability to develop the core technology in-house, leveraging indigenous resources. This minimizes reliance on rare earth metals and fragmented supply chains. Although some instrumentation components are still imported, we’re diligently collaborating with local and global vendors to create a robust vendor ecosystem for green hydrogen. This not only benefits us but also the broader sector.

Our efforts in upgrading local vendors will yield sustainable advantages for the products we’re crafting. While our base is in India, we’re creating products for the global market. Our aspirations encompass worldwide deployments, enabling us to consistently benchmark our products against the global best and to vie for market share alongside leading technology providers.

IBT:  What advice would you give to the policymakers to further uplift this sector? 

Prasanta Sarkar: We have a few recommendations for policymakers, particularly considering the startup landscape. While policies and discussions often gravitate toward larger-scale matters, it’s crucial to recognize that the journey toward scalability involves small-scale deployments and demonstrations. Most policies thus far have emphasized massive green hydrogen production, yet our current infrastructure isn’t equipped for that scale. It’s essential for policymakers to strategically leverage startups and emerging technologies. While these technologies might not be fully matured, they are on the cusp. Policymakers should facilitate the growth of indigenous, capable technologies through iterative developments. While shaping policies for large-scale production and deployment is reasonable, it’s equally important to ensure that smaller startups have fair access to policy benefits.

Prasanta Sarkar, Co-Founder & CEO of Newtrace, is a two-time awardee of the Marie Curie fellowship with a PhD in Fluid Mechanics and Energy Engineering from the University Grenoble Alpes, France. He is an aerospace engineer turned entrepreneur with industrial and research experience in product development, multiphase flows and computational mechanics.

Leave a comment

Subscribe To Newsletter

Stay ahead in the dynamic world of trade and commerce with India Business & Trade's weekly newsletter.