Hydrogen fuel cells have promised plenty as the fuel of the future for quite some time. Unlike the limited supplies of fossil fuels, hydrogen is plentiful, and when you combine it with oxygen in a fuel cell you get electricity, water vapour and heat, so in principle it’s very environmentally friendly.
Unlike battery electric vehicles it’s also quick and easy to refill a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, taking mere minutes in contrast to recharging a battery electric vehicle.
But there are problems with hydrogen. Hydrogen itself may be non-polluting when it’s used, but producing it is usually anything but. The conventional way of extracting it is by processing fossil fuels. “Green” hydrogen extracted with renewable energy is possible but so far more at least, more expensive.
Then there’s the massive expense of rolling out hydrogen infrastructure to supply hydrogen vehicles. There’s virtually nothing anywhere right now. And talking of expense, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are very expensive – far costlier than battery electric vehicles.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that sales of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been miniscule compared to petrol and diesel vehicles, and even battery electric vehicles. Yet hydrogen fuel cell vehicles may yet have their time in the sun, perhaps not for cars and light vehicles, but for long distance haulage trucks, trains and even ships.
Horses for courses
It would be overstating to call it a growing consensus, but there is a belief among many experts that fuel cells and battery electric vehicles are not so much competing technologies, as complementary ones. Or in other words, it’s a question of “horses for courses”.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles offer two distinct advantages over battery electric vehicle: Re-fuelling times and range. Where an electric vehicle can take a long time to charge, the fuel cell vehicle can be refilled in about the same time it takes to fill a diesel truck with fuel. Then once full of hydrogen that vehicle is good for several hundred kilometres. That range and rapid re-fuelling makes it better suited for long distance haulage, though it doesn’t matter so much for city-based transport, where battery electric vehicles make more sense.
Fuel cell manufacturer, Ballard, is understandably gung-ho about the technology, boldly claiming that “performance, cost reduction and sustainability” make fuel cells “the zero-emission technology for 2020 and beyond”.
It’s a big claim, but Ballard makes the case for hydrogen’s advantages for coaches and long-haul trucking in particular along routes with hydrogen re-fuelling corridors. Ballard also believes that FCEVs (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles) will be the most affordable option for certain applications within the next 10 years “as manufacturing technology matures, economies of scale improve, hydrogen fuel costs decline, and infrastructure develops”.
There are some big names backing the future of fuel cell trucks, including General Motors. GM is partnering with Navistar to develop fuel cell power trains for long haul trucks. At least one big American trucking company, J.B. Hunt, will start using early examples of their trucks by the end of 2022. Production models are expected by 2024 with a range of 800 kilometres and a re-fuelling time of 15 minutes.
But the future of fuel cells for long haul trucking is less clear cut than Ballard’s confident predictions, because another trucking giant, Scania, has taken a long, hard look at fuel cells and believes the supposed benefits don’t stack up:
“…three times as much renewable electricity is needed to power a hydrogen truck compared to a battery electric truck. A great deal of energy is namely lost in the production, distribution, and conversion back to electricity.
“Repair and maintenance also need to be considered. The cost for a hydrogen vehicle will be higher compared to a battery electric vehicle as its systems are more complex, such as an extensive air- and cooling system. Furthermore, hydrogen is a volatile gas which requires more maintenance to ensure safety.”
Scania’s money is on battery electric trucks and it believes the one big advantage of fuel cells – faster re-fuelling - is not such a big deal:
“The rapid development of electric solutions for heavy duty vehicles includes the fast advancement of battery technology in respect of energy storage capacity per kg. Charging time, charging cycles and economics per kg are improving rapidly. This means these solutions will become more cost effective, primarily in repetitive and predictable applications. They will gradually overtake Scania’s industry-leading fossil and biofuel powered solutions in most transport applications. In a few years’ time, Scania plans to introduce long distance electric trucks that will be able to carry a total weight of 40 tonnes for 4.5 hours, and fast charge during the drivers’ compulsory 45-minute rest.”
Under Australian law regular rest times for long distance drivers are compulsory, so recharges can easily coincide with those breaks anyway, making that one big advantage of fuel cell vehicles a lot less advantageous.