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Hydrogen is the Diesel Killer

Updated: Apr 25

The following article appeared in the April 2024 Issue of Hydrogen Tech World.

I am calling it now: Hydrogen is the diesel killer.  In the quest to decarbonize the transportation industry through electrification, passenger cars can rely on batteries. However, the trucking industry requires a more robust alternative, and hydrogen fuel cells satisfy high use and heavy-duty equipment requirements. Some industry titans are exploring this scenario by developing hydrogen fuel cell equipment that would offer a clean alternative to diesel engines. 

The environmental and sustainability benefits are literally quite visible. Replacing diesel engines with fuel cells eliminates the CO2 and NOx exhaust, while also providing the torque required for the job.  Think of a dump truck accelerating from a stop light without all the black smoke.  Fuel cells, powered by green hydrogen, emit only water from the tailpipe.

I understand the resistance from electric vehicle supporters.  Battery electric vehicles (BEV) are more efficient, and making hydrogen requires three times the energy.

Additionally, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) cost twice as much as BEVs. Why not just use a BEV?  Missing from this line of thinking is the way the end user operates.  Multiple dynamics factor into a business case beyond the price of the equipment and the energy required for it to run.  The expense of labor for drivers, the cost of lost productivity with idle equipment, and the loss of revenue and customer loyalty due to late deliveries all must be quantified and included in any financial analysis.

Yes, a case can be made for using hydrogen in passenger vehicles, but I see EVs as the superior choice for typical consumers.  Home charging at night provides most vehicles with the power needed for a typical driver without experiencing any range anxiety.  Long trips require some planning, which will become easier as the charging infrastructure expands.  One could also opt for a hybrid if driving patterns make the EV untenable.  

However, EVs are not the answer for high-use and heavy-duty equipment because batteries have limited range, reduced available payloads, and longer re-charge times.  Heavy duty trucks that tow extreme weights or carry heavy loads need an exceptional power source with rapid refueling. To electrify that market, hydrogen is the superior choice. 

Numerous OEMs, like Toyota, BMW, Daimler, Paccar, Volvo Truck, and Hyundai, are developing fuel cell class 8 trucks as interest in the product grows, joining startups Nikola and Hyson in the space.  French delivery van manufacturer Hyvia, a joint venture between Renault Group and Plug Power, begins shipments to customers in Europe this year.  FedEx began a trial with a Hyvia delivery van in Amsterdam in February.

IMC, the logistics company with headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, recently moved away from electric semis in favor of hydrogen trucks for their zero emissions tractors.  IMC is adding 50 Nikola Tre FCEV to its fleet after using BEVs for two years at its drayage business in Southern California.  According to IMC CEO Joel Henry, “Because of the extreme weight and load profile of the drayage trucks, the BEVs could not operate an entire shift and would take too long to recharge.”

Henry went on to say, “You can only get four to six hours of productivity out of the truck in a 12-to-14-hour period if they are under load.  The problem is that it isn’t sustainable for trucking companies, which can operate diesel tractors for about 20 to 24 hours a day."

It’s important to note that IMC’s drayage business generally entails heavy loads and challenging routes. IMC still has a majority of the 750-truck fleet running on diesel.  However, the zero emissions units will run on hydrogen. 

I wanted to know what drivers thought about fuel cell trucks, so I reached out to William Hall, a Founder and Managing Member of Coyote Container, a drayage and transportation company, based in Berkeley, CA.  According to Hall, “As an owner operator the fuel cell option was my preference for the following reasons: 1) Lack of infrastructure to charge a BEV. 2) Range. Needed a solid 500-mile range for my intended service lanes. 3) Quick refueling time. Refueling can be combined with the DOT required 30-minute rest break. My current refuel times have ranged from 20-35 minutes.”

Regarding the ride and feel of the Nikola truck, he said “it is quiet and smooth with reduced road-induced impacts. He added that the truck seems to have good power and acceleration while being well balanced.”

Ironically, Hall did not see an issue with the hydrogen refueling infrastructure as it relates to the current stations on his regular routes, even though infrastructure is usually a concern when discussing hydrogen. With a focus on diesel powered equipment, fewer refueling stations are required. 

The lack of hydrogen stations has commonly been cited as a concern for adoption of fuel cell trucks. Shell recently shut down its public hydrogen stations in California, but 75 operational stations remain.  Ironically, Hall does not share that apprehension as stations along his standard drayage routes provide ample refueling opportunities. The trepidation of insufficient refueling locations applies to other parts of the world as well.  By the end of 2023, only 265 hydrogen stations exist across Europe with almost half of those located in Germany.  South Korea leads Asian countries with 174 active stations.  

Inadequate refueling infrastructure may not truly be a widespread issue as many potential FCEV fleets are tethered or captive.  Garbage trucks and delivery vans are a great example; the trucks drive their regular routes and return to the same depot every day, so one station can fuel the entire fleet.  With captive fleets, like mining sites, the equipment does not leave the location, so all the equipment also can refuel at one station.  GM partnered with Komatsu to design a mining truck to replace diesel power mining equipment.  The company chose fuel cell technology over battery electric because it is lighter, provides longer run times, and is quicker to refuel. 

Over-the-road trucks use a network of nationwide truck stops, so incorporating hydrogen refueling at these locations is a natural fit.  Drayage trucks, like the fleets at IMC and Coyote Container, regularly travel the same routes and visit only a few sites, again reducing the number of public hydrogen stations required.  

Plug Power recently announced the release of a mobile refueler capable of fueling class 8 trucks.  The high-capacity trailer will transport 1500 kg of liquid hydrogen.  The molecule is vaporized into a gas and compressed for dispensing into vehicles at 350 bar or 700 bar, the automotive standard for high capacity fueling.  Since the unit transports hydrogen as a liquid instead of a gas, Plug can reduce the number of trailers needed for a fleet because of the energy density.  Liquid trailers can store up to six times the hydrogen as gaseous trailers. This mobile refueler provides a bridge for fueling capabilities for pilot programs and small fleets.  When end users add trucks, it is easier to justify the expense of a permanent refueling infrastructure. 

The great energy transition moves slowly and deliberately.  Fossil fuel use will not cease overnight, especially in transportation, and no technology can be considered a panacea.  As the trucking and heavy-duty equipment industries transition to cleaner forms of energy, hydrogen fuel cells are the right tool for the right application. 

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