Could Your Next Truck be Fueled by Hydrogen?

Late last year, Cummins, who makes truck engines, unveiled a demonstration vehicle at the 2019 North American Commercial Vehicle Show in Atlanta. Their strategy is to provide customers with a wider portfolio of options as many look for ways to not only reduce fuel consumption and its associated cost, but also provide a more favorable carbon footprint via sustainable power choices.  The Cummins portfolio includes their traditional line of diesel engines, as well as natural gas, hybrid, and now battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell solutions. 

Supporting Infrastructure

The power requirements of class 8 trucks, and a supporting infrastructure to charge electric vehicles has been a longstanding obstacle in the progress of electric vehicles.  While electric vehicles of any type, including heavy trucks, require adequate charging stations and a supporting infrastructure, they must also have a range that is long enough to make it from one charging source to another. 

Notwithstanding, Cummins remains very optimistic in their offering of hydrogen fuel cells for trucks.  Hydrogen and fuel cells can be used in a broad range of applications. These range from powering buildings, cars, trucks, to portable electronic devices and backup power systems.

Hydrogen: High Energy Content 

Hydrogen is an alternative fuel that has very high energy content by weight. It’s locked up in enormous quantities in water, hydrocarbons, and other organic matter. Hydrogen can be produced from diverse, domestic resources including fossil fuels, biomass, and water electrolysis with wind, solar, or grid electricity.

Unlike batteries, fuel cells, in general, have notable advantages over electric batteries; they do not run down or need to recharge.  The only caveat is they need a steady and constant source of fuel and oxygen.  But they are environmentally more friendly than traditional diesel or gasoline fuel. The amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, if natural gas is used as the fuel, may be reduced by 90% with a fuel cell, in comparison to that used by a traditional gasoline engine.

In electric vehicles fuel cell electric cars have a range of more than 300 miles on one tank of hydrogen fuel. For trucks this may be less and much depends on the efficiency of the cell.  But hydrogen fuel cells can refuel quickly - like filling up with diesel fuel or gasoline.

In a fuel cell, the engine has no moving parts.  This means a longer durability of parts with no worries about friction, wear, and oil changes - in the same way that traditional vehicles need to be concerned.  A fuel cell is about twice as efficient as an internal combustion engine.  

Hydrogen’s Favorable Operating Range

Cummins is touting the value of its new hydrogen fuel cell truck.  It has a range of 150 to 250 miles between filling up, however, that range can be extended with additional hydrogen tanks, by increasing the tank storage pressure, or by installing additional fuel cells to optimize management of the vehicle load factor.

“Developing this cutting-edge hydrogen fuel cell truck as a technology demonstrator is an important step in gaining valuable insights that are critical to continue developing the right solutions for the market and preparing for the next 100 years. Some companies make headlines talking about the future, but we’re busy building for the future,” said Thad Ewald, vice president, corporate strategy at Cummins and leader of the company’s Electrified Power segment, in a public statement in October of 2019.

The zero-emissions Cummins class 8, 6x4 day cab tractor is a technology demonstrator suitable for vocational applications, including regional haul, urban delivery operations, port drayage and terminal container handling.

A Long Way Off?

But infrastructure to support hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, such as trucks, is also premature, scarce, but growing.  According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there were 43 open retail hydrogen stations in the United States counted by mid-year 2020. Another 30 plus stations - at different points of construction are in the works. California has the most, with 1 in Hawaii, and 12 planned for the northeastern states.

It certainly appears that the infrastructure is not enough to support over-the-road transport via Class 8 trucks at present.  But this could be changing in the years to come.

Thad Ewald trumpeted the importance of providing customers choice to meet their transportation needs with power that suits their strategic goals: “In the long run, the customers we serve will likely need more than one type of power, depending on their specific markets, applications and use cases. We are uniquely positioned to help our customers select the right solution for their needs. Our deep technological expertise and global service and support network means we are able to help them transition from one technology to another at the time that’s best for their business.”