Volvo sees a greener future in hydrogen fuel cells

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Volvo Group chief technology officer Lars Stenqvist clearly sees a future in fuel-cell-electric vehicles – a generation of trucks that will draw their power from hydrogen. But it would be a mistake to believe he expects such equipment to fill every need.

“We are working with three technologies in parallel. We don’t believe in one silver bullet,” he stresses, noting that battery-electric vehicles and even combustion engines will have a role to play in a fossil-free future. “All three will be major cornerstones in our strategy going forward … I don’t see any retirement date at all for the combustion engine.”

Components are assembled into a fuel cell system in Nabern, Germany. (Photo: cellcentric)

Still, Volvo has an aggressive target of producing an entire vehicle lineup that breaks free from fossil fuels no later than 2050, the same year the European Union pledges an economy based on net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The shift in available truck technologies will begin significantly sooner than that.

“By 2030, 35% of our vehicles across the globe will be electric – either battery-electric or fuel-cell-electric,” Stenqvist said, during a broad-ranging interview with Today’s Trucking.

Each path is expected to meet a different need. The combustion engines are a fit where biofuels are available, but there isn’t expected to be enough of that fuel to go around. Given the energy densities of today’s batteries, the battery-electric trucks will be limited to lighter weights and shorter ranges associated with tasks like urban deliveries.

For heavier weights and longer hauls, the focus turns to hydrogen fuel cells.

Canada’s cellcentric role

The demand has also led to an unusual joint venture, teaming Volvo Group and arch rival Daimler Truck AG in a business known as “cellcentric” to develop the underlying fuel cells. These cells will transform hydrogen and oxygen into heat, electricity and water, in an electrochemical reaction that is sometimes referred to as “cold combustion”.

There’s a decidedly Canadian connection, too. While much of the focus is on Europe at the moment, cellcentric includes a team in Burnaby, B.C., sharing a street address with Ballard Power Systems.

Volvo and Daimler executives have been decidedly tightlipped about the exact focus of work at the location, though.

“Canada, Vancouver, is a hub when it comes to fuel cells. It’s one of the global hubs. It’s a competence center in the world,” Stenqvist offers.

What is known is that cellcentric engineers are collectively working on a system that will deliver 300 kW of continuous power needed to support longhaul trucking applications. That equates to about 400 horsepower, he says, adding that ultimate ranges will match those seen in the longhaul trucking of today.

“It will be a little bit more time to fill up a hydrogen truck, but not much.”

“Canada, Vancouver, is a hub when it comes to fuel cells,” says Volvo CTO and executive vice-president group trucks technology Lars Stenqvist. (Photo: Volvo Group)

Fuel sources

Much of the journey involves a shift in the fuel, too.

As clean as hydrogen fuel can be, generating byproducts like heat and water, today’s global supply is generally “grey” in nature and produced using natural gas. Truly slashing CO2 emissions will require a dramatic increase in the “green hydrogen” produced using renewable energy like solar farms, wind turbines, and hydro-electric power.

“We need to get much more green electricity,” Stenqvist says, noting that the shift to a carbon-free future will see a four- or five-fold increase in electricity demand. “It must be renewable electricity as well.”

Hydrogen volumes might need to grow five to seven times over those produced today, he adds.

For its part, Canada’s federal government recently committed $1.5 billion to develop a national hydrogen strategy.

“I foresee that North America will be definitely a market where we have a lot of hydrogen,” Stenqvist says.

The uses won’t be limited to road transportation alone. Road transport might account for less than 10% of the global hydrogen demand, he says. Bigger consumers will be involved in steel, concrete, cement, marine and aviation sectors.

“If it was only us, road transport, then it would have been much more of an issue with infrastructure.”

Refueling network

But the infrastructure needs involve more than creating the fuel itself. Trucks will need to tap into a related distribution network as they complete their journeys.

European policymakers appear to be ready to support calls from the continent’s truck manufacturers to establish a network of 1,000 hydrogen fueling stations as early as 2030.

That doesn’t sound like a huge number, Stenqvist admits. “It’s not that you can refuel your hydrogen truck at every fueling station … It’s not a big investment, but it’s sufficient to get going.”

It also helps to answer the chicken-egg dilemma that asks what comes first. Truck buyers need access to a fuel network; building a fuel network requires a commitment to produce the trucks.

Then there’s the matter of cost. Like their battery-electric counterparts, trucks that run on fuel cells will come at a higher price than diesel-powered equipment, especially in early days. For the option to be viable, the hydrogen will need to cost around US $3-4 per kilogram to bring the fuel prices in line with diesel, Stenqvist says.

“We will be helped by our politicians in different parts of the world, and there will be a price on carbon fuel.”

Separate but apart

In the meantime, cellcentric teams are combining the engineering know-how of two of the world’s largest truck OEMs.

And there are clearly questions to answer. The fuel cells in wider use today were mainly developed for passenger cars, Stenqvist says. There are significant differences when it comes to what would be required for trucks.

“One is the high average output when it comes to power,” he says, comparing the steady demands of a truck to the fluctuating demands generated by a car. Where passenger car systems need to last a few thousand hours, the truck-focused systems must be designed to last for years.

As closely as Daimler and Volvo are working together on fuel cells, the trucks themselves will be another matter entirely. In that work, they remain “fierce competitors”, Stenqvist says. Each OEM will develop their own strategies that relate to factors like tank locations, cooling systems, and electric motors that transform the electricity into motion.

But the journey toward hydrogen fuel cells is clearly underway.

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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking,, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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  • I’ve been telling people on other forums that hydrogen will be a big part of our future. I expect plug-in fuel cell hybrids and possibly plug-in hydrogen ICE hybrids to gain popularity. The expected task of a vehicle will determine the size of its battery. I don’t want the transportation industry hogging a lot of batteries. By utilizing hydrogen, more batteries will be available for smaller vehicles, hopefully at reasonable cost per kWh.