When exhaust gas is nothing more than water vapor

Clean hydrogen power is a dream coming true

The fight against the rise in global CO2 and the warming of the climate demands innovative and diversified approaches. Hydrogen is drawing increasing attention as an extremely promising energy carrier even for road transportation. The big advantage of hydrogen: it is unbeatable for mobile storage of large energy quantities, and its energy storage capabilities are even superior to many batteries. Versatile and flexible, there is really no reason not to use hydrogen on the road. The technology is not quite ready for cars, but this form of power definitely has potential for heavy goods vehicles.

It’s slowly becoming clear: in the area of truck transport, new hydrogen and fuel cell technologies offer promising and exciting possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The high efficiency of hydrogen-powered fuel cells, especially in comparison with combustion engines, could be utilized in onboard electricity generation as well as in electrification of the drive system. Other factors that speak in favor of this alternative form of power in goods transport include the harmless exhaust gases and a reduction in particulate matter. Calculations have shown that 70-80 tons of CO2 can be saved annually by powering a truck with hydrogen.


Still a rarity today

Despite this attractive potential and the existing applications in passenger transport, hydrogen is still hardly ever used in trucks. The demands on an economically feasible solution are just too diverse: on one hand, the share of fuel costs relative to total costs naturally plays a key role. New, innovative drive systems with higher procurement costs will only pay off if the operating costs can be kept low.

On the other hand, the reduced range is still posing a potential disadvantage. While a 40-ton truck with conventional drive can travel an average of 2,500 kilometers, a hydrogen fuel cell truck with the same weight and tank volume can only go 300-400 kilometers. This range could potentially be extended to as much as 1,000 kilometers with a higher energy density and a larger tank, but only if EU directive 2015/719 with its special rule for fuel cell vehicles is applied. This permits a higher weight and greater length for trucks that contribute to a reduction in harmful emissions.

Another general issue is fueling since hydrogen-powered trucks will not become a common sight on our roads until we have a dense supply and fueling station infrastructure.


Innovators get to it!

Despite these challenges, an increasing number of companies for whom the positive potential for the environment clearly outweighs the momentary economic disadvantages are investing heavily in research and development in this area. Asia in particular – and above all China – as well as the USA are at the forefront here. Among car makers, Toyota is one of the absolute leaders.

However, the innovators in the truck industry are also worthy of particular interest: one relative newcomer is the US start-up Hyzon Motors Inc., whose fuel cells convert hydrogen into electrical energy for electric motors. The first city buses and trucks with total weights from 15 to 40 tons are already expected by the end of the year, with up to 80 tons planned for 2021. These are expected to achieve ranges of 400 to 500 kilometers. But the company is already dreaming of bigger innovations and has announced a heavy load fuel cell truck with a total weight of 140 tons, called the Road Train.

The US-American automaker Nikola Motors, named after the famous genius and inventor Nikola Tesla, follows a similar approach. However, Nikola does not rely exclusively on hydrogen. In 2021, the company wants to launch a battery-electric vehicle: This electric truck will have a large hydrogen tank behind the driver’s cab and a fuel cell which uses the energy thus generated to charge the battery while driving. The manufacturer even goes so far to develop three vehicle models taking into account the regional specifics in the USA and Europe. The European version of the truck is set to roll across the streets in 2022. The plans sound ambitious, but promising. Thus it comes as no surprise that the Nikola Motor Company made a brilliant stork market debut at NASDAQ at the start of June 2020. Investors were scrambling for shares and intermittently, the company was even worth more than Ford. 

With hydrogen into the future

Switzerland shows how it’s done

Another frontrunner in the area of hydrogen and fuel cell trucks is the privately operated Swiss initiative H2 Mobility, which is aiming at nothing less than the world’s largest hydrogen truck fleet. The initiative was first advanced by the Swiss retailer Coop, which oversaw the development of an initial 34-ton hydrogen truck. This truck model with a range of 400 kilometers was approved for use already in 2017 and has since proved on the roads of Switzerland that it can handle the demands of truck transport – all without any harmful emissions.

After the initial difficulty of finding a manufacturer in Europe for series production, the Korean auto-giant Hyundai finally came on board and took over production. This hydrogen truck is now available on a pay-per-use (per kilometer) basis through the specially established Swiss company Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility. Clearly, the drive system is not the only innovation here.

Since its founding in 2018, H2 Mobility has grown to 17 employees and currently includes retailers, fueling station operators, car dealers and logistics specialists. The company is also focused on infrastructure and plans to build a dense hydrogen fueling network by 2023. By the end of 2020, it will have 50 hydrogen trucks, but the company expects to have 1,600 of these innovative vehicles by 2025 to meet the rising demand for renewable, sustainable heavy goods transport.


Not automatically environment-friendly

There is still one hard nut to crack, however. As a raw material, hydrogen may be infinitely available in nature, but in order to utilize it, hydrogen must first be isolated and processed. Extraction from natural gas is currently a typical method, but this still involves use of a fossil energy carrier. This alternative is obviously far from completely sustainable. The production of hydrogen through electrolysis is more environmentally friendly, but this still requires lots of energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Here we see the difficulty. The technology is only truly environment-friendly if exclusively clean, renewable energy is used to produce the hydrogen.  In other words, if we are able to produce sufficient green electricity, then hydrogen has excellent prospects for powering clean drive systems. Until then, we remain caught in a dilemma, which we will hopefully soon be able to resolve. There are also a number of promising projects under way to fly aircraft with hydrogen instead of jet fuel. But this topic definitely deserves its own article.

Good to know: H2 as “Gasoline”

In principle, hydrogen can be used to power combustion engines, electric motors and hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells. 

  • In a hydrogen combustion engine, hydrogen is used as a fuel that drives the engine running by means of a detonating gas process similar to gasoline-powered engines.
  • Fuel cell vehicles generate electrical energy locally in a fuel cell and use this to move the vehicle or store it temporarily in a traction battery. The “waste gas” is simply water vapor.
  • In electric cars, energy is generally drawn from a power socket and stored in a battery for later use. Alternatively, fuel cells can be used here as energy converters to drive electric motors. 
  • Tests have shown that vehicles equipped with hydrogen tanks are significantly less dangerous in the event of accidents than those with gasoline tanks. So we can forget the myth of rolling “explosive canisters.”