TORONTO, Ont. – It seems fuel cell technology is slowly but surely gaining ground in the Canadian trucking industry
At least that’s what Mississauga-based Hydrogenics Corporation would have you believe.
The publicly traded company introduced its latest refueling technology at the Canadian National Exhibition in September.
The on-site hydrogen refueling station was hooked up to the Toronto wind turbine, demonstrating the possibility of generating hydrogen from water via wind power or other “green” means.
The HyLyzer hydrogen fuel generator was hooked up to a refueling station, which was subsequently used by Hydrogenics technicians to demonstrate how quickly and easily hydrogen vehicles can be refueled using a refueling station that, with its rectangular shape and tube and nozzle fitting, pretty well duplicates the diesel and gas station refueling stations used today.
Fuelling up didn’t take long. The demo car – a two-seater with a .6 litre tank capacity that’s been making the rounds of green power gatherings (including last year’s Michelin Bibendum in San Francisco) took about two seconds to refuel.
(The dispenser apparently refuels at a rate of 1/2 kg per minute. Hydrogen is a gas, not a liquid, and is therefore measured in mass.)
According to company officials, the vehicle would be able to go 125 km on a full tank.
As for commercial vehicles, technologists are still wrestling with issues that make using hydrogen fuel cell powered heavy duty and long haul trucks impossible (e.g. the size of tanks and batteries needed and distribution issues). But they do see immediate applications for fueling auxiliary power units (some are currently being tested on heavy-duty trucks at a company in California).
And there are immediate applications for urban delivery box van vehicles, such as those operated by Purolator and FedEx, which are lighter, smaller and more easily refueled because they run regular routes and return to the same depot every evening.
In fact, Hydrogenics is currently testing a fuel cell hybrid Purolator medium-duty delivery truck, based in Mississauga, where the company has also installed a Hydrogenics hydrogen regenerating and refueling station. The station dispenses hydrogen fuel made from purified tap water.
The vehicle typically runs about 80 km per day in the greater Toronto area, with hundreds of stops along the way, which makes it a perfect candidate for fuel cell hybrid technology.
This technology uses ultracapacitors to capture and retransmit to the fuel cell energy lost during braking (the technology also reduces the capacity requirement for on-board storage of hydrogen.)
“When you think that the fuel efficiency on such a vehicle would be 11 per cent with diesel, it makes sense,” said Hydrogenics Chief Financial Officer Gary G. Brandt.
Brandt claims the Purolator fuel cell hybrid vehicle operates at 50 per cent fuel efficiency in the same application.
Here’s how a fuel cell works: A fuel cell converts chemical energy from hydrogen and oxygen into electrical energy, and produces an electrical current. It is similar to a battery in that it has an anode and a cathode.
But while a battery is only capable of storing power, a fuel cell can generate it, so long as fuel (hydrogen) is being supplied.
As such, a fuel cell has similarities to an internal combustion engine, except that it operates more efficiently at lower temperatures and with fewer moving parts.
And, in the process of producing electricity, its only by-products are water and heat.
In light of increasing emissions reduction requirements, fuel cell technology is beginning to look interesting.
To produce a usable amount of electricity, multiple fuel cells are combined into a fuel cell stack.
The more cells you have in a stack, the more power you produce. (Herein lies the problem for using the technology in heavy duty vehicles, which would currently have to sacrifice payload to stacks.)
In addition to the stack, the fuel cell includes many components for such functions as injecting fuel gases, managing a critical water balance, conditioning the power output and monitoring and controlling all the required system parameters such as temperature and pressure.
Without these supporting systems, the stack can’t produce usable power.
One of the best ways of making hydrogen fuel is through electrolysis, which uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. (This is the technology used in the Hydrogenics hydrogen generator.)
The electricity can be supplied by wind or solar power and stored in a fuel cell to generate hydrogen on overcast or low-wind days.
Stripping a carbon fuel such a natural gas, which does produce some emissions, can also produce hydrogen.
But either way, it’s cleaner than diesel and probably one of the future alternatives to its use.