Hydrogen Lightens the Load for Heavy Trucks

Players new and old are entering the hydrogen propulsion arena for commercial trucks thanks to weight and range advantages over BEVs.

Hydrogen propulsion continues to gain traction as a solution for the decarbonization of medium- and heavy-duty trucks. Numerous OEMs are currently testing and demonstrating H2 trucks on public roads as well as in fleets, and there’s a steady stream of new announcements in this space.

Tom Stephenson is the CEO and co-founder of Pajarito Powder. (Pajarito Powder)

Nikola announced in January a new brand, HYLA, that will encompass the company’s energy products for the production, distribution and dispensing of hydrogen to fuel its zero-emissions trucks. The company’s Class 8 truck, the Nikola Tre, aims to offer a range of up to 500 miles (805 km).

SAE Media attended a presentation at CES 2023 by Tom Stephenson, CEO and co-founder of Pajarito Powder. The Albuquerque, New Mexico-based firm is a manufacturer of catalysts for use with proton-exchange membrane (PEM) and alkaline fuel cells and electrolyzers.

Stephenson highlighted the strengths of hydrogen propulsion for use in over-the-road trucks compared to battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) and how his company views hydrogen’s role in the decarbonization of the commercial trucking sector. He noted that H2 propulsion has experienced a significant jump in investment in the past 18 months.

“The place where we’re really seeing hydrogen vehicles being implemented is trucks,” Stephenson said. “The reason why we think this makes sense is that the heavier the load and longer this distance, the better that fuel cells are for that application. The medium- and heavy-duty vehicle is the real sweet spot.”

“We’re [also] very excited about what the H2 industry looks like for the future,” Stephenson continued. “One of the interesting barometers is the level of venture capital investment. From 2020 to 2021, we saw a dramatic uptick in the overall amount of investment. And the expectation is that investment to grow again by the end of 2022.”

Load bearing

During his presentation, Stephenson cited a recent study by Kenworth that demonstrated the advantages of fuel cells compared to batteries for large trucks in terms of carrying capacity. The study claimed that to provide a 350-mile (565-km) range for a Class 8 tractor-trailer with a 70-

gallon (265-liter) diesel tank, the battery required would weigh in at roughly 16,800 lbs (7,620 kg). By comparison, a hydrogen fuel cell would be able to provide the same range with a tank and fuel weight of roughly 4,320 lbs (1,959 kg).

The total weight of a full 70-gallon diesel tank is roughly 850 lbs (385 kg). As such, the FCV system would only represent a 3% decrease in carrying capacity versus the diesel powertrain, whereas the BEV solution would eat up 28% of the truck’s carrying capacity. “When you talk to anyone in the logistics business, the idea that you’re only going to be able to carry three-quarters of the load is a real problem. Even if it has the same range and refuel time,” Stephenson said.

“One of the things to understand about how batteries and hydrogen work [relates to] the differences between power and energy,” Stephenson explained. “What electric vehicles with batteries are extraordinarily good at is being able to deliver power quickly. This is why BEVs are able to accelerate so well. You don’t have any latency and you have the instant availability of power.”

Stephenson continued, asking “But what if you need more energy? If you need a longer range or [have to] carry a heavy load, you need to add more hydrogen on board, which has a very small impact of the overall weight and range. [This is why] tomorrow’s energy infrastructure is not going to be one size fits all. There is not going to be one solution that works for everything. What works for commercial trucks may not work best for cars; what works best for ships may not work best for trains, and so on.”

New leadership

According to a recent study by Kenworth, fuel cells represent a significant weight savings over batteries for Class 8 trucks. (Kenworth)

Stephenson also cited the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 as a watershed moment for the growth in hydrogen investment. “Most of the Europeans view the Inflation Reduction Act as a real gamechanger in terms of U.S. participation and leadership in these types of programs,” he said.

“Prior to that [act] I would get asked, what do the Europeans think and Asian countries think about the United States’ overall investment in these technologies? The reply in the past was that we need that leadership coming from the U.S. but that we’ve been back and forth with them on it repeatedly. So, the fact that they view this as a gamechanger was to me a bold statement.”

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Energy has provided much greater incentive for clean hydrogen production than the federal government has in the past. Under the IRA, there is now a tax credit of up to $3 per kg of hydrogen produced so long as it is created through “clean” sources. The target for the DOE is reportedly to achieve a production price of $1 per kilo by the end of the decade.