Hydrogen, now mainstream

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You don’t have to look very hard at all to be inundated by news about electric cars and buses and trucks these days. In the four-wheel world, some manufacturers plan to offer predominantly electric powertrains within the decade or nearly so. By 2025 Volvo aims for 50 percent of its cars to be ‘pure electric’, the rest plug-in hybrids. Goodbye internal combustion.

In Norway – a rich oil-producing nation, remember – the majority of cars sold today are already electric.

The electric storm won’t slow down and it’s just as strong in the trucking universe, but Daimler and Volvo have just put the hydrogen fuel cell option more firmly on the truck map than it’s ever been. More on that in a minute.

You won’t catch me owning an electric personal vehicle any time soon, I promise. It’s about the range, or dramatic lack of it. I just read one car-maker’s attempt to assuage range fears, which suggested that its car’s 400 km maximum one-charge driving distance would be fine for long trips. When you hit that max you just stop for a meal and wait 40 minutes for a fast charger to give you 80 percent of a full charge, they say. Gimme a break.

First off, getting 400 km out of a charge assumes warm weather with limited use of AC and electric bits like headlights. Try getting that far in winter when battery life shrinks like mad. No thanks. I routinely drive to Montreal and Nova Scotia and Indiana and such places. Just take that Montreal jaunt – for me it’s an easy-peasy 450-km run with no stops. Do I want to shut it down and wait 40 minutes when I’m less than an hour away from the end? Assuming I could find a vacant fast charger. Halifax is something like 1700 clicks which, in ideal conditions, would demand five or so stops, again assuming fast chargers. The extreme hassle of all those stops, not to mention the wasted time, would drive me nuts.

(Photo: Cummins)

But hey, this is about trucking. In our game we have an advantage in many applications where the required range is predictable. Urban and close-regional freight work, towing, utilities, and such where the truck is likely shut down overnight are all fine for battery electric vehicles. For us, they will work well.

But when we get thousands of cars and buses and trucks demanding power from the grid at the same time, where are we then? Billions of dollars will have to be invested over the next 20 or 30 years to make it all work. I’m not even sure that’s possible. And if the power isn’t produced by sustainable, environmentally responsible means, what do we gain?

Hydrogen fuel cells, on the other hand, don’t come with such baggage, though an expensive infrastructure does have to be developed.

“Hydrogen-powered fuel-cell electric trucks will be key for enabling CO2-neutral transportation in the future,” says Martin Daum, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler Truck. “In combination with pure battery-electric drives, it enables us to offer our customers the best genuinely locally CO2-neutral vehicle options, depending on the application.”

He was speaking in late April during the formal launch of a new fuel-cell joint venture called ‘cellcentric’ between Daimler Truck and the Volvo Group. The two companies outlined their “industry-first commitment to accelerate the use of hydrogen-based fuel cells for long-haul trucks and beyond.”

They say that the fuel-cell electric and battery electric options are complimentary, which they obviously are, if you accept that the grid and infrastructure challenges can be met.

According to a press release accompanying the announcement, the other major European truck manufacturers, backed by Daimler and Volvo, are calling for the setup of around 300 “high-performance” hydrogen refuelling stations suitable for heavy-duty vehicles by 2025 and of around 1000 hydrogen refuelling stations no later than 2030 in Europe. Daimler and Volvo aim to start with customer tests of fuel-cell trucks in about three years and to be in series production of fuel-cell trucks during the second half of this decade.

This joint effort does not mean that the two manufacturers are joining forces to produce trucks together. All vehicle-related activities will be carried out independently from each other, and the companies will remain competitors in all vehicle and product ranges, and particularly in the integration of fuel cells in their trucks.

Cellcentric is a huge step forward in the advancement of fuel cells in Europe, where environmental goals are far more rigidly respected than they are on this side of the Atlantic, but of course the technologies it develops will be applied elsewhere.

Here in North America their involvement remains to be seen but there are many others in the picture.

Cummins, for example, is a leader. Among other projects, which include a demo fuel-cell truck running in California and a joint development with Navistar, it bought the Canadian company Hydrogenics two years ago and has since built a 20-megawatt PEM electrolyzer system to generate green hydrogen, making it the largest in operation in the world. Installed at the Air Liquide hydrogen production facility in Bécancour, Quebec, it can produce over 3,000 tons of hydrogen annually using clean hydropower. The technical details don’t matter here, just know that this solves the challenge of how to store hydrogen.

An interesting new entrant is Europe-based Hyzon Motors which aims to build up to 100 hydrogen production hubs across the United States and globally. Each hub will convert organic waste in nearly every form into locally produced, renewable hydrogen for Hyzon’s zero-emission commercial vehicles, including garbage trucks. The first hub is planned at a landfill in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is expected to be commissioned in 2022.

“In our considered opinion, the slam-dunk use case for hydrogen is heavy, high-utilization vehicles,” said company CEO Craig Knight in an interview with my colleague Jim Park. “A big vehicle that gets driven many hours a day is a bloody hard thing to get off fossil fuels without hydrogen. So we focus on those heavy kind of payload-imperative type vehicles, where they’re paid to carry weight.”

It’s ready to put trucks on the road this year.

Couldn’t like the sound of that more.

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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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