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Is hydrogen really the way forward for trucks?

Hydrogen fuel cell technology may not be the norm for private vehicles. For long-haul transport, however, it’s clearly the future.

May 30, 2021 / 10:41 AM IST

The last week has marked some significant developments in the world of heavy-duty transport, which, much like the private vehicle sector, is undergoing tectonic change. Unlike private cars, which are looking at rapid and total electrification in the near future, long-haul truck makers are keener on using hydrogen as a renewable energy source. The primary reason for this is that hydrogen is more suited to consistently long-distance, cross-country journeys that heavy-duty trucks have to undertake.

In the span of a week, Daimler Trucks has announced that it will be focussing on hydrogen-powered fuel cells for its long-haul trucks with a functional prototype already deployed for rigorous field testing. The prototype of Mercedes-Benz’s GenH2 truck, which was unveiled last October, is expected to be tested on public roads very soon, although its series-production debut isn’t expected until 2027. Daimler is one of many European truck makers under pressure to develop hydrogen technology, with Sweden’s Volvo and Italy’s Iveco also doubling down on electrifying

Hyundai Motors, however, is one step ahead. With an existing hydrogen-powered truck in their fleet, Hyundai has announced plans to ship the Xcient Fuel Cell truck to Europe by the fourth quarter, this year. Hyundai’s road-ready fuel cell truck will already be on the frontline of testing the efficacy of hydrogen as an energy source for long-haul while European truck makers are still in the prototype stage.

This is largely thanks to Hyundai Hydrogen Solutions, a joint venture between Hyundai and Swiss hydrogen energy company H2. For its part, Daimler AG has launched a joint venture with Volvo trucks, called “Cellcentric”, which intends to develop hydrogen fuel cells for large trucks, while also working on battery-electric trucks, carrying lower cargo weights, that will be used for shorter routes.

Why Hydrogen? According to David Cullen, a scientist studying fuel cell catalysts at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the US, “Hydrogen fuel cells are ideal for the trucking industry because the refueling time and driving range are comparable to gasoline-powered trucks and travel routes are predictable, which lowers the barrier for developing a fueling infrastructure”. As such, Europe is looking at a hydrogen-powered freight corridor, stretching roughly 1300km, to be fully functional by 2025.

Close

Studies conducted by ORNL also claim that “hydrogen fuel cells contain a higher amount of energy-per-unit mass than a lithium battery or diesel fuel”. Simply put, this enables a long-haul, heavy-duty truck to pack more energy without the added weight that would come from a lithium ion-sourced energy equivalent.

Then there’s the fact that the time needed to fill up a truck with onboard hydrogen is on par with ICE cars and requires a lot less time than charging the battery fit for a long-haul cargo truck. Extended charging times can delay payload delivery, thereby reducing the sector’s efficiency which would cost money.

Given that heavy-duty transport contributes heavily towards greenhouse emissions, and relies predominantly on diesel, it makes sense that the hydrogen offensive starts with big trucks. A kilogram of hydrogen has the same energy density as 3.7 litres of diesel.

Is hydrogen truly a zero-emission source of energy? 

The European Commission, in an official communique addressed to the EU, breaks down the various means through which hydrogen can be obtained. Out of these “Fossil-based hydrogen” which is derived via natural gas or coal creates harmful emissions which only add to the carbon footprint. They’re also highly dependent on natural gas prices, and the fact that it’s a depleting energy resource hasn’t helped further the cause of hydrogen.

The only viable way forward is if hydrogen is extracted via clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Neither of these sources, according to the document, are cost-competitive against fossil-based hydrogen, costing about twice as much per kilogram, in Europe.

The abundance of hydrogen by itself is no guarantee that it’s synthesis as a fuel will be just as easy. This isn’t to say that the lithium-ion battery production process is completely clean. The production of both these zero-emission sources of energy comes at the cost of CO2 emissions.

Why are we not using hydrogen to power passenger cars? 

However, hydrogen’s place in the road transport ecosystem requires some reconsideration since it’s a far more sustainable option in the long run than EVs. And given the extensive charging times required for EVs, it’s also more practical. In the case of hydrogen fuel cell cars, hydrogen and oxygen combine to create electric power, thereby giving the vehicle the same performance advantage as EVs.

However, heavy reliance on natural gas and the high cost of renewable hydrogen has kept the costs of hydrogen EVs very high. The hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai costs approximately Rs18 lakh more than a Tesla Model 3.

As a result, the infrastructure required to sustain widespread usage of hydrogen EVs remains woefully underdeveloped across all European countries. As a result, a major chunk of investment money has gone into funding EV startups, because EVs, although a stopgap measure in the larger scheme of things are the immediate future. According to Howden, a renewable energy solutions provider in the US, over 80% of leaders in the car manufacturing industry identify FCEVs as the most likely solution for long-range mobility in the near future.

The Forecast

The only ray of hope lies in the fact that both Europe and China are competing to build a world-leading industry around hydrogen technology. And the resulting competition is likely to drive down prices.

India too is considering focussing on green hydrogen. According to CNBC, Fusion Fuel Green, an Ireland-based green hydrogen technology company, has signed an agreement with BGR Energy Systems, a Chennai-based engineering firm, to set up a solar-powered hydrogen manufacturing unit in India.

Last November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also quoted saying that India will launch a “comprehensive National Hydrogen Energy Mission” A recent report by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI) also highlighted India’s potential in being a green energy solutions provider, predicting that “by 2050, 80% of India’s hydrogen will be produced by renewable electricity and electrolysis”.



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Parth Charan is a Mumbai-based writer who’s written extensively on cars for over seven years.
first published: May 30, 2021 10:38 am
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