High time for heavy duty hydrogen trucks

The expression ‘chicken and egg’ crops up repeatedly when researching hydrogen’s role as a viable fuel source for heavy duty lorries, and it’s easy to see why.

trucks
Nikola-TRE (Image: Nikola Motor Co.)

One kilogram of hydrogen has the same energy density as a gallon of diesel, but manufacturers won’t invest in the development of fuel cell electric trucks if there is little or no refueling infrastructure in place for customers.

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“To encourage adoption, hydrogen faces similar issues to battery EVs – the need for infrastructure and volume manufacture of vehicles to reduce costs. Battery EVs need charging points and sometimes grid reinforcement; hydrogen vehicles need refuelling stations,” Mark Griffin, market development manager for clean fuels, BOC told The Engineer.

It’s a conundrum that has helped stymie the adoption of hydrogen as a fuel source for heavy-duty vehicles, but this is about to change with tightening tailpipe emissions standards and a drop in the financial – and environmental – cost of producing it.

The EU has mandated that from 2025, heavy-duty vehicles will have to emit 15 per cent less CO2, rising to 30 per cent from 2030. The organisation adds that as a first step, the CO2 emission standards will cover large lorries, which account for 65-to-70 per cent of all CO2 emissions from heavy-duty vehicles. In the UK, the government’s Road to Zero Strategy is driving the transition to zero emissions across all vehicle types for public, commercial and private transport.

Speaking at the launch of the Nikola Tre, Gerrit Marx, president of IVECO commercial and specialty vehicles, said, “In order to bring down 15 per cent we need to target 20-25 per cent CO2 reduction versus actual consumption in 2019, which is only possible with 8,9,10 per cent fully electric, emissions free, heavy duty trucks.

“There’s only one way to do it, and that’s battery electric trucks with a modular toolkit, a modular platform that allows for fuel cell electric range extender technology.”

Despite being the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen must be extracted from compounds including water or methane, and the processes to do this haven’t been low-cost or low carbon until quite recently.

The most common production method today is steam methane reformation, which can be a low-carbon process when used with carbon capture or a biomass feedstock, said Griffin. Another is electrolysis, a process that extracts hydrogen from water. In its Path to Hydrogen Competitiveness report, the Hydrogen Council states that electrolysis via renewables is 60 per cent more affordable as low-carbon and renewable electricity prices have dropped and capital expenditure in electrolysis has fallen.

“This is how hydrogen is produced at Europe’s largest hydrogen bus refuelling station, Kittybrewster in Aberdeen operated by BOC,” said Griffin. “Once generated, the hydrogen is compressed to store it efficiently.”

Kittybrewster produces 300kg of hydrogen a day, which Griffin said is enough to refuel ten 42-seat buses, with each bus travelling up to 350km on a full tank.

Addressing the chicken and egg conundrum for Class-8 trucks, Nikola Motor has a target of 700 heavy duty fast-fuelling stations across the USA by 2028 and a more modest 70 across Europe by 2030. These will provide refuelling in 15-minutes on 3-to-4-hectare sites that will use renewable energy sources, supplemented with grid power, to produce a standard 8T of hydrogen per day. Delivered in partnership with Norway’s Nel, the stations will provide 7T/day heavy duty fueling at 70Mpa (enough for around 160 trucks), and 1T/day for lighter duty fueling on the SAE J2601 standard, providing fuel for around 200 passenger cars.

“Ultimately, hydrogen fuel cells will be more economically viable than Battery Electric Vehicles because of the power required to pull heavy loads, the space available in the truck cab and the constant use that heavy duty applications require just to make them economical,” said Jim Gregory, European business development manager for alternative fuel, at Luxfer Gas Cylinders.

In the long-range commercial vehicles market there is a clearer opportunity for the application of fuel cell technology, added Jeremy Parkes, DNV EV business leader.

“We anticipate that 5-13 per cent of heavy goods vehicles will be powered by fuel cells by 2050, according to our Energy Transition Outlook report,” he said.

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