In for the long-haul: Are hydrogen-powered trucks the vehicles of the future?
There’s a lot of hype around hydrogen fuel-cell trucks. But is it warranted? Are they here to stay? Let’s explore the pros and cons of hydrogen-powered vehicles and learn more about a high-level research project designed to answer these and other questions.
The huge potential of hydrogen
Everyone, it seems, wants to know what the future of sustainable transport will look like. Especially anyone interested in the automotive or logistics industries. Why? Because that future isn’t at all clear. Alternative fuels that seemed like science fiction only a few decades ago are revolutionizing how we power our vehicles today.
There are two leading contenders for long-haul road transportation powered by alternative fuels: electric and hydrogen. While electric vehicles (EVs) are all the rage, more and more manufacturers are developing and testing hydrogen-powered trucks for long-haul transport. And they’re seeing promising results. What’s more, logistics companies are keenly interested in deploying this technology for transport logistics (more on both below).
As innovation leaps forward, hydrogen fuel-cell trucks may emerge as the trailblazers that usher diesel engines off the stage for good. But a lot of roadblocks still stand in the way. Let’s take a closer look.
How do hydrogen-powered vehicles work?
Before we get to the pros and cons of hydrogen technology for long-haul transport, let’s take a brief look at the technology, which, we have to say, is really cool. We won’t get too geeky here, so check out sites like this to dive deeper into the topic.
In simple terms, hydrogen-powered trucks are electric vehicles that generate their own electricity, relying on hydrogen as an essential component. But how? First, compressed hydrogen is pumped into a high-pressure tank and then into a fuel cell, where the gas is split into protons and electrons. Now, reach way back to high school chemistry class for this next part: the electrons generate the electrical energy that powers the vehicle’s electric motor. And the protons turn into water, which is why these vehicles have zero tailpipe emissions.
Hydrogen power is as magical as it is simple, which is probably why this technology has been around since the early 19th century. And now that it’s being rigorously tested in real-world situations, it’s looking like a promising clean fuel for the 21st century. Many stakeholders – including us – are excited about the potential of hydrogen-powered trucks for sustainable logistics in the future. That being said, there are pros and cons.
Hydrogen-powered vehicle growth in 2022
growth in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles worldwide
hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles on the road worldwide
growth in fuel cell truck segment, outpacing cars and buses
of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles were trucks
Sources: IEA Global EV Outlook 2023
Hydrogen-powered trucks: the pros and cons
There are good reasons why many people think that hydrogen is the fuel of the future. First and foremost, hydrogen-powered trucks running on hydrogen from renewable energy sources can help to achieve the goal of a carbon-neutral road freight system. The only byproduct from this alternative fuel source is water vapor, with no carbon dioxide (CO2) or other harmful emissions released during operation. And, as hydrogen is one of the most abundant resources on earth, there are no real limits on its production.
Hydrogen-powered trucks can also go the distance. Since fuel cell power trains weigh less, these vehicles can drive farther with heavier loads and shorter refueling stops. This makes them ideal for long-haul transportation. They’re also quiet and efficient, with fuel economy equivalent to about twice that of gasoline vehicles.
But there’s a catch. Or rather, multiple catches.
One of the biggest challenges is the production of hydrogen itself. Right now, the vast majority of the world’s hydrogen is produced from non-renewable natural gas, creating enormous CO2 emissions. This undermines its environmental benefits. Green hydrogen production, a process that uses electrolysis to split water (H2O) into hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2), will have to be ramped up and draw on renewable electricity sources to make hydrogen-powered vehicles truly clean.
Hydrogen fuel cells are also less energy-efficient than batteries in storing and releasing electrical energy. Lots of energy is lost in the process of converting electricity to hydrogen and then back to electricity in the fuel cell. In other words, more energy is needed to move a hydrogen-powered truck than a battery-electric vehicle.
And while more and more parking lots have charging stations where battery-powered vehicles can top up, the infrastructure for producing, transporting, and dispensing hydrogen is underdeveloped. Building a hydrogen refueling network will take time and a lot of money, which can limit the availability and convenience of hydrogen fueling stations, particularly in rural or less populated areas.
There are other practical issues to consider: hydrogen is difficult to store and transport because it is a low-density gas. It must be compressed or liquefied, requiring additional energy and infrastructure. Hydrogen tanks are necessary, usually behind the driver’s cab. The result: the truck’s front end is longer, so the trailer has to be shorter in countries where total vehicle length is restricted by law. This reduces payloads, making hydrogen-powered trucks a less attractive option.
Last but not least is the all-important issue of cost. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is more expensive than traditional internal combustion engines or battery-electric systems. However, as the technology matures, these costs might come down, making hydrogen-powered trucks a financially viable alternative.
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Looking into the future of hydrogen-powered vehicles
Though very promising, hydrogen remains an area that requires extensive research. That’s where projects like HyCET (Hydrogen Combustion Engine Trucks) come in. Members of the consortium behind this research project are teaming up to identify and explore the potential of hydrogen technology for road freight. Over four years, they plan to develop and test the real-world use of four trucks with hydrogen combustion engines: two 18-ton trucks and two 40-ton trucks.
The project is also working on another critical piece of the puzzle: the infrastructure needed for the widespread rollout of hydrogen-powered trucks. For hydrogen-powered vehicles to gain traction, hydrogen refueling stations need to be publicly accessible. The research will add and test two new hydrogen filling stations in the German cities of Nuremberg and Leipzig.
In the BVL Podcast on the study “Sustainability in Logistics – Fleets and Alternative Drive Technologies“
Hydrogen is in demand
Despite some uncertainty about the road ahead, one thing is clear: Companies are excited about the potential of hydrogen-powered vehicles. A recent DHL survey of over 100 companies from industry, trade, and logistics found that hydrogen was the preferred truck-driving technology for the years ahead. That being said, the shift away from diesel will prove difficult. The concerns mentioned here are real barriers to the widespread adoption of hydrogen power for road transportation.
So, is hydrogen overhyped?
Well, yes and no. Hydrogen power holds tremendous promise as a clean energy source. But it’s important to acknowledge that it’s spinning its wheels right now. Real challenges need to be addressed before it can become a mainstream solution. But once these roadblocks are removed, hydrogen-powered trucks could well shift gears and become a viable solution to decarbonizing the road freight sector in the long term.
Published: October 2023