Hydrogen Engine Technology The Future of Transportation

Hydrogen is keenly anticipated to make a meaningful impact in the world’s sustainable energy landscape and the commercial transportation sector gets benefit from the use of ‘green hydrogen’.
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When people think about hydrogen for commercial vehicle use, they often think of common fuel-cells battery electric. Internal combustion engines (ICE), however, are also a viable way to power a vehicle with hydrogen. Hydrogen ICE engines can achieve the same outcomes as fuel cells in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but typically with smaller upfront investment. Engine familiarity can make switching to hydrogen engines easier as internal combustion engines are more known to users and manufacturers.

As of 2020, there were more than 30,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road globally, according to International Energy Agency. However, hydrogen power has struggled to gain mainstream acceptance and use across the transportation industry. A market sector where this has been especially evident is in heavy-duty trucks and commercial vehicles.

Data from a 2020 survey shows that of all hydrogen-powered vehicles currently registered globally, just 25% are a commercial or heavy-duty truck. The largest number of those are buses, with more than 5,000 currently in use. That’s far more than light commercial vehicles (LCVs) or any other type of truck, which combined account for just over half that total. Despite this, there has been ongoing research and development to advance the technology and efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells as well as adapting existing internal combustion engine (ICE) technology to utilize hydrogen as a fuel for heavy-duty applications.

Need for faster refueling and greater range

According to research by McKinsey & Company; short-haul freight battery electric vehicles (BEVs), namely trucks and vans, are already reaching total cost of ownership (TCO) parity in the first use cases, helping simplify the transition for fleets. This is being enabled by rapidly declining battery costs and the launch of new vehicles, including purpose-built battery electric delivery vans.

However, the picture is quite different for long-haul trucking. Long distances, unpredictable routes, high uptime requirements, strict driving-time regulations, and the importance of high payloads have made this sector particularly hard to decarbonize.

With current energy densities, batteries are too heavy, charging speeds are too slow, and infrastructure is not yet available to directly electrify trucks on particularly challenging routes.

As a result, long-haul trucking has focused on hydrogen-powered fuel and hydrogen combustion, which are attractive for two main reasons.
Faster refueling and greater range can increase the uptime potential for trucks.

Lower weight compared with batteries can increase payload capacity.

Together, these factors improve hydrogen trucks’ TCO, which is the KPI that the highly competitive transportation industry will be responsible for.

Challenge of hydrogen-powered vehicle infrastructure

In the coming years, there is likely to be a significant increase in hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road, including fuel cell trucks.

Unlike batteries, which directly store electrons to power electric motors, fuel cell trucks use tanks to store energy in the form of molecules in gaseous or liquid form. In fuel cell trucks, hydrogen is converted into electrons and water, with the electrons powering the truck’s electric motors.

The technology required for these trucks and to generate hydrogen is already well developed and being deployed. Instead, hydrogen infrastructure is often considered the major bottleneck to adoption. Hydrogen refueling stations are not ubiquitous today and each station requires considerable investment with a value chain supplying hydrogen also required.

In hydrogen combustion trucks, hydrogen is burned in combustion engines, similar to diesel. The required hydrogen can be created in different ways; either by reforming natural gas and capturing CO2 or through electrolysis, which is the process of using electricity to separate hydrogen from oxygen.

Besides the clear commercial vehicle benefits, hydrogen also benefits the infrastructure side. Hydrogen is already taking off in other industries irrespective of transport, leading to the de-risking of investments in hydrogen production and transport. At scale, the infrastructure is less costly to create than e-truck charging infrastructure because it does not require grid upgrades and has a smaller carbon footprint. The faster refueling speed means the hydrogen infrastructure can be used by many more trucks than charging infrastructure.

As such, the business case for hydrogen infrastructure is becoming increasingly attractive as hydrogen sourcing costs decline and vehicle demand increases.

Further research by McKinsey & Company shows that operators of Hydrogen Refueling Stations (HRS) could reach break-even by as early as 2025 when serving a small fleet of trucks. Specifically, a medium-size HRS with a daily capacity of 500 kilograms (kg) could reach break-even prices at 55 percent utilization, depending on the hydrogen sourcing costs and sales prices. In this case, seven long-haul HDTs would be sufficient to provide the required demand for this station which is an attractive proposition that bodes well for the future of hydrogen-powered commercial vehicles.

The road to carbon neutrality includes hydrogen power

On the road to carbon neutrality, there are various powertrain options to meet customers’ demands, including HEVs, BEVs, and FCEVs, in accordance with the differences in energy conditions in different countries and diversified customer uses. Hydrogen engines are one such option as engine technology is evolving, since May 2021, the hydrogen-powered Corolla has even participated in the Super Taikyu Series. Finally, as efforts toward achieving a hydrogen society are further accelerating, the increase in the number of partners in producing, transporting, and using hydrogen is continually increasing.
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