31 July 2020

Is hydrogen the fuel of the future?

Earlier this year, a major deal was struck for a bulk gas distributor to transport hydrogen to the capital, where Transport for London (TfL) will use it to power 20 hydrogen-fuelled double deckerbuses from September. It’s a move seen as a big step for the UK’s hydrogen infrastructure and eventual plans for net zero carbon emissions by 2050.   

Yet, surely we cannot achieve carbon neutrality on our roads unless the vehicles transporting the hydrogen – and those shipping any other goods – are still powered by fossil fuels. Could hydrogen fuel cells become the driving force behind the bulk logistics sector? Here we weigh up the viability of hydrogen as a fuel for bulk logistics operations.

Hydrogen infrastructure around the world

Aside from cost, one of the biggest challenges to bulk logistics hydrogen fuel adoption is a lack of fuelling infrastructure on our roads. As a type of electric vehicle, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) run on electricity generated by compressed hydrogen fuel cells, rather than a traditional battery, and these cells require specific hydrogen fuelling points.

Progress on hydrogen fuelling networks is starting to be made though. While it’s still early days for hydrogen as a fuel, several countries are starting to invest significantly in building national hydrogen infrastructures. China, USA, Japan and Germany have all pledged to create networks of hydrogen fuel cell stations, while in the Netherlands, a natural gas company aims to build the world’s first hydrogen grid by 2028.  In Germany, a country  leading the way on hydrogen fuel, there are plans for enough H2 fuelling stations to charge 60,000 fuel cell vehicles by the end of 2021, and work has started on a ‘hydrogen corridor’ for fuel cell trucks to travel through Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The UK’s current investment in hydrogen fuel

Here in the UK, contracts such as the TfL example above are paving the way for investment in hydrogen, but there’s still a long way to go. The government has earmarked funds to build two hydrogen production plants, one in Merseyside and one in Aberdeenshire, but as far as H2 fuelling stations go, there are still fewer than 20 nationwide. That’s in stark contrast to electric vehicle (EV) charging points, which now number around 30,000 and rising.

We have taken significant steps towards creating an electric vehicle transport infrastructure, which is undoubtedly a good thing for environmental sustainability overall, but it hasn’t (as yet) benefitted the bulk logistics industry. Due to limits around battery capacity and range of current EV technology, the feasibility of battery-powered HGVs is still uncertain. Many doubt whether EV tech is cut out to meet the demands of bulk operations.

Thanks to the high energy density of hydrogen (approximately 120 MJ/kg, almost three times that of diesel or petrol), there would be no such issues with hydrogen fuel cells, but of course, investment in the infrastructure is not yet there. Some experts believe the key to creating this is to build a wider ‘hydrogen economy’, in which it powers not only vehicles, but homes and businesses too. This way, a national hydrogen grid would become a viable option.

Hydrogen as a fuel for bulk logistics

As we’ve mentioned, hydrogen is well suited to fuelling large, heavy duty vehicles like HGVs. Its density means large vehicles can run for hundreds of miles on a single charge and it takes just 10 minutes to refuel. It’s also extremely efficient; whereas half the energy generated by a traditional combustion engine is wasted as heat, electric drivetrains used by hydrogen-powered vehicle lose just 10 per cent. Hydrogen truck manufacturers claim their vehicles achieve the equivalent of 12-15mpg.

It sounds ideal, even the H2 refuelling experience would be very similar to what HGV drivers are used to now in terms of the actions and time it takes; hydrogen gas can be pumped into a vehicle just like diesel. What’s more, hydrogen fuel cells are lighter than electric batteries, but offer the same high torque with better acceleration.

That said, hydrogen is still far more expensive than diesel or electric, if you can find somewhere to refuel in the first place. Its price is expected to fall over time, but of course this depends on the creation of more hydrogen plants and refuelling stations at which to distribute it.

The lack of infrastructure has meant vehicle manufacturers have been slow to invest in the technology, although that is starting to change. Hyundai hopes to roll out 500,000 passenger and commercial hydrogen vehicles by 2030, and US-based manufacturer Nikola has partnered with CNH Industrial (IVECO’s parent company) with the aim of having H2 trucks in showrooms within two years. However, rather than buying a whole new hydrogen fleet, it could be that bulk logistics firms will be able to lease vehicles with fuel included, at least at first.

All in all, moving towards hydrogen for bulk logistics feels like a bit of a chicken and egg situation, with each barrier to adoption linked to the next. It’s likely that we’ll see this begin to change as we have done with EV adoption, and this can only be good news for the bulk logistics sector. With pressure to remove diesel HGVs from our roads, time will tell if hydrogen can be the hero alternative fuel source it promises to be.

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