Even as electric utilities and other fleet operators are embracing battery-electric medium- and heavy-duty trucks to move to zero-emission power, another wave of alternative power is rolling in: the hydrogen fuel cell. Just as a battery-electric vehicle (BEV) delivers zero-emission power, so does a fuel-cell vehicle (FCV).
Thanks to several key advantages of FCV design, expect to see heavy-duty trucks powered by fuel cells arrive on the market in the U.S. within the next five years – and maybe as soon as 2022.
The power drawn from a BEV’s onboard batteries is recharged by plugging in the vehicle as well as by regenerative braking. In contrast, a fuel cell generates electricity via an internal electrochemical reaction. When hydrogen and oxygen are combined, electricity, heat and water are generated. Because of that advantage, fuel-cell power is being developed for a wide range of vehicles, from forklifts to trucks.
Like batteries, fuel cells are a clean, efficient, reliable and quiet source of power. Unlike batteries, fuel cells do not need to be periodically recharged. Instead, they will keep on producing electricity as long as they can tap a fuel source.
To greatly simplify the description offered by the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association (www.fchea.org), a typical fuel cell splits hydrogen molecules into electrons and protons. The reaction to that generates an electric current and excess heat as well as water molecules – the only thing emitted from the tailpipe of an FCV.
As well as not requiring charging, fuel cells have no moving parts, so they operate silently and with extremely high reliability, FCHEA points out. On top of that, an FCV can deliver the greater range that many fleet operators seek, which a BEV cannot deliver without having in place an extensive network for off-site charging. In addition, an FCV can handle higher payloads than a BEV.
Gaining that greater range is a factor of the fuel cell’s internal electricity generation. What makes ranges of 300 to even 900 miles – promised by some upcoming FCV trucks – possible is that multiple fuel-cell power modules can be installed on a commercial truck.
Also, building fueling infrastructure at scale for FCV fleets is more cost-effective than for BEVs, according to Plug Power Inc. (www.plugpower.com), a provider of hydrogen fuel-cell turnkey solutions.
Green and Global
So, that’s what the excitement is all about. And FCVs being a green solution for trucking is backed up by the emphasis that major global truck makers like Daimler and Volvo, and newcomers like Nikola, are putting on developing these vehicles for multiple markets.
For example, Nikola (https://nikolamotor.com) plans in the next several years to roll out an FCV variant of its Nikola Tre cabover, plus a long-range FCV, the Nikola Two sleeper.
The Tre FCV is being developed to provide a range of up to 500 miles, both to allow for fast fueling and quick turnaround. This truck is planned to reach full production in the second half of 2023.
The bigger of the FCV duo will be the Nikola Two sleeper, which the company said will deliver a range of up to 900 miles. This truck will be based on a new chassis custom-designed for North American long-haul operations. Nikola said it plans to launch it in late 2024.
Both of these FCV trucks are expected to use multiple common fuel-cell power modules and scalable hydrogen storage systems. Nikola said both systems are undergoing development and testing, and the company expects to begin road-testing the first prototypes with these systems in 2022.
Underscoring even more sharply the coming dawn of FCV trucks, back in April, two of the largest global truck makers, Germany’s Daimler Truck AG and Sweden’s Volvo Group, inked a joint venture – dubbed “cellcentric” – that will focus their efforts on “accelerating the use of hydrogen-based fuel cells for long-haul trucks.”
Stating that the joint venture is aimed at becoming “a leading global manufacturer of fuel-cell systems,” the partner firms said that cellcentric will develop, produce and commercialize fuel-cell systems for long-haul trucking and other applications. The cellcentric operation is to start up in 2025.
Not a Competition
Interestingly, the two truck makers observed that the choice between battery-electric and hydrogen-based fuel-cell trucks will depend on each customer’s use case. Battery power will be preferred for trucks with lower cargo weights and shorter routes. Fuel-cell power will be preferred for heavier loads and longer distances.
In other words, BEVs and FCVs will complement each other, not compete against each other, as both will against diesel and natural gas power.
As for a neutral take on the potential of fuel-cell power for heavy-duty trucks, consider that scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory recently observed that, as a viable alternative to internal combustion engines in trucks, “hydrogen fuel cells can provide sustainable, clean energy with a comparable user experience.”
About the Author: David Cullen is an award-winning journalist who specializes in covering the trucking industry. Based in Connecticut, he writes for several business publications.