Hydrogen Fuel Cells Are Revolutionising Heavy-Duty Transport

Hydrogen fuel may only be making small waves in the automotive sector, but in the future of the heavy-duty transport industry, it is heralded as the fuel of the future.

Although only in its infancy, governments and suppliers alike are working towards clean, economical, and safe production and distribution of hydrogen for widespread use in hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, known as FCEV.

But before we look into how hydrogen is set to shake up the heavy-duty transport industry we need to understand where hydrogen comes from, and how it has been harnessed into a zero-emissions fuel with outstanding benefits that has several hurdles yet to overcome.

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Where does hydrogen come from?

Hydrogen is the most abundant element on earth but it is rarely found in its isolated form. Instead, it’s normally found as part of other elements such as in water (H2O), hydrocarbons (such as methane, CH4), and other organic matter.

Therefore, to isolate hydrogen it needs to be extracted through chemical, solar-driven, and biological processes.

The largest percentage of hydrogen today (above 95%) is produced from natural gas during the chemical process of steam reforming.

Note that 85% of hydrogen produced is used to remove sulfur from gasoline in refineries.

However, and most interestingly, hydrogen can also be produced from renewable sources; using biogas, a gaseous form of methane obtained from biomass, or through electrolysis using electricity generated by solar or wind. This will result in dramatically reducing the CO2 emissions that come from hydrogen production.

These various technologies are being developed with an aim to deliver lower costs and greater quantities to compete with hydrogen production using natural gas.

Producing Hydrogen via Steam Reforming

Steam reforming is a high-temperature process in which steam reacts with a hydrocarbon fuel (fossil fuel) to produce hydrogen. Most commonly natural gas is the hydrocarbon fuel used, however, there is also diesel, gasified coal, gasified biomass, and renewable liquid fuels.

Producing Hydrogen via Electrolysis

Electrolysis is the process where water is separated into oxygen and hydrogen within an electrolyzer using the energy of a hydrogen molecule to split the bonds of the water molecules.

Producing Hydrogen via Biomass

In biomass conversion, microbes such as bacteria and microalgae break down organic matter such as biomass or wastewater, to produce hydrogen.


The Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Some of you may already know that liquid hydrogen has been used to send rockets into space since the 1950s, but bringing it a lot closer to home is the hydrogen fuel cell.

Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity by combining hydrogen with oxygen.

The hydrogen which comes from one or more tanks built into the FCEV reacts with the oxygen, which comes from ambient air, across an electrochemical cell to produce electricity, water, and heat.

The electricity powers an electric motor and the water and heat are emitted as the only by-product from the tailpipe as water vapor.

There is no carbon dioxide (CO2) or any other harmful emissions being produced as it would from our current gasoline or diesel combustion engines. The only emission from a FCEV is water vapor therefore it can be considered a zero-emission vehicle.

In this sense a fuel cell is very similar to a battery-powered car, an electric vehicle (EV). They both convert the energy produced by a chemical reaction into electric power. However, the difference is that a hydrogen fuel cell never loses its charge like an electric battery will - all it needs is a constant supply of hydrogen to produce the electricity itself. And luckily, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the world.


Hydrogen Fuel Cell vs Electric vs Combustion

The promises of hydrogen fuel cell cars include; a clean fuel with no harmful exhaust emissions, the same performance and torque of electric cars, greater range than electric cars, and shorter refuelling times.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are powered by electric motors that pull current from a rechargeable battery or other portable sources of electricity, like FCEVs they are also zero-emission, however, EVs have a lower range and longer refuelling (in this case recharging) times.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars vs electric cars vs combustion diesel petrol cars

Both hydrogen and electric cars have zero-emissions however the manufacturing process for both still result in the production of CO2.


Why is hydrogen not more popular as a fuel?

Arguably the most common issue preventing the uptake of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is the growing uptake of EVs as the priority green alternative. An increase of 37% year-on-year.

Electric vehicles are getting a lot of the investment pie and leaving very little for the hydrogen economy which results in a ripple effect preventing hydrogen from becoming a more viable option. Costs remain extremely high, and the infrastructure required remains on hold.

Without enormous investment into the hydrogen economy from production, to transport, and infrastructure the uptake of hydrogen fuel vehicles cannot compete. What then happens is a catch 22 situation - without having places to refuel your car, you aren’t going to buy one, and without buying one there isn't a reason to build refuelling stations… 

But not only that, there is another clear concern when it comes to hydrogen-fueled vehicles, but thankfully it is one that can be addressed. The current conditions under which the hydrogen used in fuel cells is produced.

When producing hydrogen from natural gas there are still harmful emissions involved in the process, increasing the carbon footprint and countering the progress made from the zero tailpipe emissions.

However, if the hydrogen production process uses renewable energy sources such as wind and solar for electrolysis there would be a neutral carbon footprint and a monumental decrease in harmful emissions.

hydrogen fuel in heavy duty transport lorries

Hydrogen Fuel In Heavy-Duty Transport

Although Hydrogen hasn’t taken off (just yet) in the automotive industry, most manufacturers are understanding the potential that hydrogen fuel can have in the heavy-duty transport industry to make commercial vehicles greener.

As you may know, the EU has mandated that from 2025, heavy-duty vehicles are getting strict limitations set on their CO2 emissions - from 2025 a cut of 15% is required and by 2030 their emissions need to be cut by 30%.

Large lorries account for 65-70% of all CO2 emissions from heavy-duty vehicles.

This is due in part to the power required to pull heavy loads and the vast distances that these vehicles can cover.

Therefore, in this instance, hydrogen fuel cells are more economically viable than EVs due primarily to the time it takes to refuel a FCEV over the time it takes to charge an EV. Downtime costs money and having trucks out of action for hours on end while they charge, against minutes of refueling - there is a clear winner.

Not only this but there is only so much space available in the truck cab and the high energy density of hydrogen makes it particularly suitable for heavy-goods transport vehicles.

One kilogram of hydrogen has the same energy density as a gallon of diesel.

According to the Energy Transition Outlook Report it is anticipated that 5-13% of heavy good vehicles will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells by 2050.


The Future of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

At Howden, we believe that hydrogen is truly the fuel of the future for the heavy-duty transport industry.

We believe hydrogen is the solution for long-range mobility in the future, and with over 100 years of experience in compression of hydrogen, we have developed a range of products to facilitate the re-fuelling of FCEV's.

And with over 80% of leaders in the car manufacturing industry identifying FCEVs as the most likely solution for long-range mobility in the near future now is the time to get involved.


Find out more and download our brochure today - Pure Hydrogen Delivered at 1000Bar: Compressor Solution for Fuelling Stations




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