Indian Transport & Logistics

Fuel cells powered by hydrogen for trucks will be the future

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the most suitable option for the logistics industry. Over the next few years, there will 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 powered by hydrogen for trucks use tanks to store energy in the form of molecules in gaseous or liquid form.

In fuel cells, hydrogen is converted into electrons and water, with the electrons powering the truck’s electric motors. In hydrogen combustion trucks, hydrogen is burned in combustion engines, similar to diesel engines truck. The required hydrogen can be created in different ways—either by reforming natural gas and capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) or through electrolysis, which is the process of using electricity to separate hydrogen from oxygen.

The technology required for fuel cell trucks and to generate hydrogen is already well developed and being used by many auto companies.

Furthermore, besides the 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.

On a large 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 surges.

Compared with storing energy in batteries, hydrogen-fuel celled trucks can refuel faster and carry a lower weight penalty because tanks weigh considerably less than batteries. Operationally, hydrogen trucks can therefore be deployed on a similar scale with diesel trucks but with the advantage of producing no emissions. It also means that they will be cheaper to operate in the long term than diesel trucks.

“In the coming future, if hydrogen becomes available at the right cost, it will start making commercial sense because at that point, I would not be surprised if the central government feels that hydrogen is a fuel that saves us foreign currency and, therefore, moves to lower tax on it. If that happens, it will trigger a certain amount of shift towards hydrogen," said Virender Mohan Jain, Chairman And Managing Director, Arham Energy Limited.

“The shift to hydrogen depends not only on the technological advancement of fuel cell vehicles, but also the readiness of the ecosystem. Few discussions seem to suggest that in the next three to five years, we’ll start seeing at least some amount of hydrogen production coming online, especially green hydrogen. In the coming future, we’ll start seeing at least availability of hydrogen across certain long-distance corridors. Then, we’ll see fuel cell vehicles that actually make sense," he added.

What are hydrogen fuel cells?
A hydrogen fuel cell uses the chemical energy of hydrogen to produce electricity and it is a clean form of energy with electricity, heat and water being the only products and by-products. Fuel cells offer a variety of applications, from transportation to emergency back-up power, and can power systems as large as a power plant or as small as a computer.

Fuel cells provide more benefits over traditional combustion-based technologies, including greater efficiencies and lower emissions. Since hydrogen fuel cells only emit water, there are no CO2 emissions or other pollutants released into the atmosphere. They are also quiet during operation as they have fewer moving parts than combustion technologies.

How does a hydrogen fuel cell work?
Like all-electric vehicles, fuel cell EVs use electricity to power an electric motor. In comparison to other electric vehicles, FCEVs produce electricity using a fuel cell powered by hydrogen, rather than drawing electricity from only a battery. During the vehicle design process, the automakers defines the power of the vehicle by the size of the electric vehicles that receives electric power from the appropriately sized fuel cell and battery combination.

Although, auto companies could design an FCEV with plug-in capabilities to charge the battery, most FCEVs today use the battery for recapturing braking energy, providing extra power during short acceleration events, and to smooth out the power delivered from the fuel cell with the option to idle or turn off the fuel cell during low power needs. The amount of energy stored onboard is depend on the size of the hydrogen fuel tank. This is different from an all-electric vehicle, where the amount of power and energy available are both closely related to the battery's size.

What is the benefit of a hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle?
The advantage of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) is that they produce no tailpipe emission and it only emit water vapour and warm air. Another advantage of a hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle is that they are more efficient than internal combustion engine vehicles.

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles has another benefit when it comes to refuelling time, which makes them more practical than battery-powered electric vehicles for public transportation purposes. Even with the fastest charging technologies, it may take hours to charge a battery-powered electric bus. However, hydrogen can be refilled in a fuel cell vehicle in a matter of minutes, nearly as fast as an internal combustion engine can be refilled with fossil fuels.

Are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles environmentally friendly?
One important point to note is that using a battery-powered electric vehicle doesn’t mean that the vehicles produce no greenhouse gas emissions, but rather, that they produce no tailpipe emissions. Since a majority of the electricity in the country generate from fossil fuels, and the biggest source of hydrogen in the world currently is also fossil fuels, these vehicles do cause a large number of carbon emissions with their usage.

But just like we are progressing towards renewable sources of electricity, we could also move towards renewable methods of generating hydrogen in the coming years. So even if these vehicles do contribute to emissions right now, the fuel that they need could be produced using renewable methods such as solar and wind energy.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Indian Transport & Logistics News.

Arham Partap Jain

Arham Partap Jain

Arham Partap Jain is the founder of tech-first logistics company Trucknetic which calls itself the Uber of the trucking sector.

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