HYDROGEN IS THE most abundant element in the universe, but it has not yet been tapped widely as an energy source. However, that appears to be changing, including in the commercial truck industry.
The work on developing effective, efficient and cost-effective hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles has been ongoing for decades. A fuel cell generates its own electricity from hydrogen onboard the truck instead of needing to be charged from an external source. Fuel cell technology has zero CO2 emissions during operation, instead emitting only water vapors — making it potentially a green, sustainable energy source that would be invaluable with the growing attention paid to combating climate change.
At the 2022 MIT Energy Initiative Spring Symposium, Huyen N. Dinh, a senior scientist and group manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said she believes the 2020s will be “the decade of hydrogen.” Dinh, the director of HydroGEN, a consortium of U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories, believes domestic and international activities are demonstrating a strengthened commitment to making hydrogen a more prominent energy source worldwide, and it will be propelled forward by that commitment during the current decade.
“Now is the time for hydrogen, and the global race is on,” Dinh said.
Part of the momentum behind hydrogen fuel cell technology can be seen through the companies that are heavily investing in it. For instance, H2Accelerate is an alliance of large corporations that is working to advance fuel cell technology. The alliance includes Daimler, Volvo and IVECO, among others. Both Daimler and Volvo have announced plans to start mass-producing hydrogen fuel cell trucks later this decade, as early as 2025. The fuel cells for each company’s trucks will be supplied by cellcentric, a joint venture between the companies.
Greg Heller, president of HNO Green Fuels, said the idea of hydrogen fuel cell trucks filling the highways can seem like a distant possibility, but advocates for the technology see its arrival as likely to come much sooner.
“It seems as though the perception for many is that this is pretty far away, at least in the U.S., but the perception for some, is, ‘This is what we’re going to do and this is where we need to be going,’” Heller said.
In a research report released in 2021, Information Trends projected that more than 800,000 hydrogen fuel cell commercial trucks will be sold globally by 2035. The report includes heavy-duty, light-duty and medium-duty trucks, but points to the heavy-duty category as being the primary driver for the market because of advantages hydrogen currently holds over battery electric vehicles related to range and payload capabilities.
“Unless we see major battery breakthroughs, I imagine that hydrogen fuel cells are going to begin to dominate heavy trucking in the next decade or so,” Heller said.
In an interview with economist Vincent Lauerman, Shinichi Hirano, chief technology officer for Hyzon, expressed confidence that hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles “show a significant advantage over battery power for heavy-duty and mid-duty truck applications.” Fuel cell systems are lighter than batteries, a very attractive characteristic for trucking companies determined to maximize their payload and range. For instance, Volvo has said that its fuel cell electric trucks will have an operational range comparable to many diesel trucks.
“Hydrogen is significantly more energy dense than batteries, which is an advantage that allows for longer driving range and heavier payloads,” Hirano said.
Heller said those are two crucial benefits for commercial trucking operations.
“Hydrogen fuel cells are just going to be making more and more sense when it’s about capacity and longevity,” Heller said. “If we take a look at battery electric vehicles’ value, you don’t have a whole lot of range, and that’s kind of a critical thing.” Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles also enjoy a current advantage over EV in the refueling process. Hydrogen trucks will refuel as fast as diesel trucks — about 15 minutes, according to Volvo. Meanwhile, a battery EV takes hours to recharge, creating challenges for long-haul truck operators. Hydrogen also is not as sensitive to cold temperatures, which can reduce the range of battery electric vehicles.
“The longer the range, the higher the load, the better it is for hydrogen,” Andreas Gorbach, a member of the management board of Daimler, told The New York Times.
Because the development of hydrogen fuel cell technology is behind battery-powered technology for commercial trucks, hydrogen trucks are playing catch-up to get on the road. Among the largest obstacles that the adoption of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles faces is that they remain much more expensive than diesel-powered trucks and battery electric vehicles. A 2022 Times article noted that auto experts project that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be one-third more expensive than battery-powered models when they are introduced, and battery-powered trucks already sell for approximately three times as much as similar diesel models.
Hydrogen advocates believe the total cost of ownership will ultimately favor hydrogen because the fuel costs of a diesel vehicle will be much higher over the vehicle’s lifetime. In fact, Daimler Truck estimates that hydrogen trucks could be cheaper to own than diesel vehicles as early as 2027 because of savings in fuel and maintenance. Much will depend on how effectively hydrogen costs are reduced in the coming years. Key to a successful adoption of hydrogen fuel cell trucks is that they are not imposed upon operators by regulators, Heller said. Instead, the switch should make as much economic sense for operators as it makes environmental sense.
Another key obstacle for hydrogen is that most of it is extracted from natural gas through a process that burns more greenhouse gasses than burning diesel. Heller estimates that upward of 95 percent of hydrogen that is created right now creates more pollution from fossil fuels.
For hydrogen to become a viable solution to climate change — and one that sustainability- minded companies can adopt — it will require a major transition to green hydrogen, which is produced with solar or water power. Green hydrogen will come from both regulation and incentives that encourage it and technology that enables it, Heller said. The Times article notes that hydrogen advocates believe that the sharp increase in market interest — driven in part by demand from the steel, chemical and fertilizer industries — will prompt a dramatic shift to more availability of green hydrogen.
An additional challenge is that hydrogen fuel cell refueling stations are not yet prevalent across the United States, and Heller said there will need to be rapid, robust movement to develop that infrastructure to support commercial trucks when they are ready.
“It’s a chicken-or-egg-type situation right now,” Heller said. “Are we going to get the fueling stations up first, or are we going to get the hydrogen fuel cell trucks on the road? I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be fueling stations first.”
Heller said the cost of hydrogen refueling infrastructure will drop sharply through government incentives.
“There’s a big push on the infrastructure, getting more refueling stations and having that infrastructure set up,” Heller said.
Hydrogen has its share of obstacles to clear, but its potential appears obvious to its advocates.
“It’s the most abundant element in the universe, and it’s got a ton of promise,” Heller said.