Colorado State Developing Hydrogen Energy in Nepal to Provide Fuel, Electricity for One of World’s Poorest Nations

Note to Editors: Print-quality photographs from the Colorado State team’s work in Nepal are available on the Web for download at or by contacting Brad Bohlander at (970) 491-1545.

Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries, soon will benefit from a new energy source to light homes, cook food and generate electricity – basic needs that largely are unavailable to many people in the mountain nation’s rural areas.

Colorado State University is leading an international effort to develop hydrogen power systems to provide fuel and electricity in Nepal and to improve health, quality of life and the environment.

Through the Fulbright Scholars Alumni Initiatives Award Program, Colorado State is working with engineering students and faculty at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University to develop and install small hydrogen fuel generators throughout the nation’s countryside to meet energy needs. The project builds on Colorado State’s Engines and Energy Conservation Laboratory’s strong record of hydrogen research and engine development work with the U.S. Department of Energy and private industry.

More than 87 percent of Nepal’s energy demand is met by the burning of wood or yak dung. The dependence on wood has caused widespread deforestation in the small country – about the size of Arkansas – and significant environmental impacts. Gasoline, diesel fuel and propane can be imported from India and China, but those resources are prohibitively expensive for most people.

The Colorado State-led engineering team recently completed the first phase of the project by establishing the Hydrogen Infrastructure Laboratory at Tribhuvan University. The lab includes a prototype hydrogen power source made entirely from local resources at a cost well below budget. Team members include Bryan Willson, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Engines lab; Maury Albertson, emeritus professor of civil engineering; Jerome Bookin-Weiner, executive director of International Programs; and Chandra Joshi, engineering professor at Tribhuvan University, the pioneer institute of higher education in Nepal that was founded in 1959.  

"We originally looked for an electrolyzer (hydrogen generator) to purchase and take to Nepal for our hydrogen research, but all we found were high-tech units beginning at around $200,000, which was 20 times more than we could spend," Willson said. "Instead, we decided to develop our own solution using locally accessible materials. It was challenging and we had to be creative, but we came up with a robust design that is affordable, easily replicated with materials available in Nepal and suitable for mass production. It was a great success."

Some of the creative solutions included hiring a small plating shop to fabricate nickel-plated electrodes, building a power supply from a modified battery charger and modifying polyethylene cutting boards to insulate the electrodes. Cutting boards, available in local markets for $1 each, would have cost 20 times more if similar material had been imported from a specialty plastics supplier. Another solution was the fabrication of a safe hydrogen storage system from locally-built plastic water tanks.

Tribhuvan engineering students manufactured many of the machine’s components, often working around the clock in the school’s basic machine shop.  

Groups of engineering students from Tribhuvan and Colorado State now will work together to research ways to make small-scale hydrogen production more efficient, to develop rural hydrogen applications and even to build a prototype hydrogen-fueled vehicle for the cities. A top engineering student was recruited from Tribhuvan to facilitate the exchange and has recently started graduate school at Colorado State. After working together over the Internet for the next two semesters, the Colorado State team plans to travel to Nepal next summer to work with Tribhuvan and help test the technology in the field.

Nepal has few natural resources other than hydropower, but because the mountainous topography makes electrical grids difficult to build, only 18 percent of Nepal’s primarily rural population has access to electricity.

One solution lies in hydrogen produced from small hydroelectric generators, Albertson said, because it can be easily stored and transported. "Nepal’s most abundant natural resource has the potential to be harnessed and efficiently used through capturing and burning hydrogen as fuel," he said.

The idea for the project began when Joshi completed his Fulbright postdoctoral research at Colorado State in 2000. Joshi was hosted by Albertson, a key figure in the hydrogen power movement, and the two began discussions about the potential of hydrogen power for Nepal. The idea became a reality when the Fulbright Scholars Program awarded the collaborative team a grant in 2003 to fund the project.

The Engines and Energy Conservation Laboratory has a history of successfully developing clean energy technology to address pressing world needs. Clean two-stroke engine technology, originally developed at the lab for snowmobiles, now is being incorporated into plans to clean up the air in the Philippines and other countries in Asia and West Africa.

"Through this Fulbright collaboration, Colorado State is fulfilling its mission of disseminating knowledge developed at the university to create real, positive change in the world," Bookin-Weiner said. "This partnership is further providing our students with both international and hands-on experience while simultaneously opening a pipeline to Colorado State for very bright students from Nepal."