Hydrogen fuel cells ready for work in work trucks

Hydrogen fuel cells are often discussed as a zero-emission answer in applications where battery-electric vehicles would simply be too heavy for the job. Longhaul trucks are a perfect example of that.

A panel of speakers at the Green Truck Summit, however, argued that fuel cells may also have a home in work trucks – addressing the high loads associated with things like onboard refrigeration and auxiliary power.

“Very high utilization vehicles, to go zero emission, absolutely need hydrogen,” said Craig Knight, CEO of Hyzon Motors.

hydrogen
(Illustration: istock)

“The sweet spot for fuel cells is the dead zone for diesel engines. These are the vehicles that stop and start all the time. These are the vehicles that spend so much time on idle. These are the vehicles with massive PTO loads or refrigeration,” he explained. “So the best use cases are drayage, refrigerated trucks, concrete trucks, garbage trucks – all these things with the significant auxiliary loads.”

Morgan Andreae, Cummins executive director – technology and planning, pointed to several benefits offered by fuel-cell-electric vehicles.

“Hydrogen is the lightest element. So from an energy density perspective you get more energy per kilogram stored with hydrogen than anything else,” he said. “That enables longer range.”

Not only that, but the fueling times are comparable to diesel-powered equipment, adding to the flexibility.

There are even options to generate greener versions of the fuel, using things like solar or wind power. Hydrogen can be used to store such energy on a truck.

“We can put the production of hydrogen near where the demand is,” he said. “It creates the potential for some of these customers to actually own the production of fueling.”

Back-to-base operations offer an ideal place to start, Knight said, referring to work truck applications. Many of these depots are located in clusters, meaning that several fleets could tap into the same infrastructure investments. There’s another benefit to producing the hydrogen near such clusters, he added. “Hydrogen is cheap to make and hellishly expensive to move.”

But the Hyzon CEO also stressed that hydrogen can support the ideals of energy independence. It can be generated using everything from sewage to grass clippings and landfill gases. “You can get hydrogen out of anything.”

In contrast, Knight said that today’s electric grid and battery supplies will both limit the pace of broader battery-electric vehicle rollouts. “The grid implications are absolutely untenable,” he said.

Built for the worst case scenario

Hydrogen will be particularly helpful for fleets that have varied ranges, said George Rubin, chief commercial officer of Vancouver-based Loop Energy, which produces hydrogen fuel cells for commercial applications.

Typical trips may be addressed within the range of a battery-electric truck, but services need to be provided on the longest-possible routes.

“The more energy you put into your vehicle, the more you’re going to see the difference between a pure battery solution and a fuel cell solution,” Rubin said.

The options can extend beyond the trucks themselves. Mobile generating sets powered by hydrogen fuel cells could deliver electric power to construction sites that don’t have access to established electrical grids, he said.

“I don’t think we should necessarily think about batteries versus hydrogen. It is about electrification. Hydrogen trucks have batteries in them,” Rubin noted.

“It’s about finding the right balance that ultimately gives the fleet operator what you need to do with diesel, but without the pollution.”

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Inside Logistics, Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.


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