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GM Pushes Ahead With Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology For Long Haul Trucks

GM and Navistar will collaborate to make long haul trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Do they know something the people at Scania don’t?

Hydrogen. In theory, it’s the perfect fuel. Run it through a fuel cell and you get electricity, water vapor, and heat. Doesn’t get any more Earth friendly than that, does it? There is theory and then there is reality, starting with where one gets the hydrogen in the first place. It is one of the most abundant elements on Earth — every molecule of water has two hydrogen atoms and there is a lot of water in the world.

Then there is the whole universe of hydrocarbons from gasoline to plastics. By definition, there are hydrogen atoms in all of them and that’s the problem. Hydrogen is so reactive it bonds with everything. Getting pure hydrogen means breaking the chemical bonds that bind to other elements. Keeping it sequestered in its pure state is a whole other conundrum.

Assuming all those challenges are overcome, then comes the question of how to distribute it so it can be used to power the fuel cells in vehicles. A DC fast charging installation might cost $300,000 but a hydrogen refueling station can cost $3 million. Compressing it, trucking it, and storing it all present additional hurdles to consider.

Getting rid of carbon emissions from the transportation sector is of vital concern to the citizens of Earth. At present there are two ways of doing that — battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles. Despite massive support from the Japanese government, sales of fuel cell private cars are floundering while sales of battery electric cars are exploding. But there are some forms of transportation where batteries may not be the answer — transoceanic ships and airplanes for example. Somewhere in the middle are the tractors that haul semi-trailers loaded with freight from place to place around the world.

Courtesy of GM

General Motors, in partnership with Navistar, says it will focus on fuel cell powertrains for such long haul trucks, while in Europe, Scania, which is part of the Volkswagen group, has announced it is abandoning its fuel cell truck program to concentrate on battery power. One of these companies has correctly assessed the future of zero emission truck transportation but which one?

According to CNBC, the collaboration between GM and Navistar will include a tie-in with OneH2, a privately owned company that will be responsible for hydrogen production, storage, delivery, and designing systems to safety fuel the fuel cell powered trucks. “All parties will play a strong role in developing the consistent solution,” Navistar CEO Persio Lisboa said during a media call. “I think that this is the beginning of something, and we believe that many other customers will be able to join as we move along with the technology and the solution.”

J.B. Hunt, one of the largest trucking companies in America, will begin using the fuel cell powered trucks from Navistar and the associated hydrogen refueling systems at the end of 2022. The first production trucks are expected to be available for sale in 2024, Lisboa said. General Motors will supply its Hydrotec fuel cell power cubes to Navistar for use in its production model fuel cell electric vehicle, the International RHTM Series.

The companies are billing the collaboration as part of a “complete solution” for Navistar customers. The fuel cell powered trucks will have a range of 500 miles, according to the companies and be able to be refueled in just 15 minutes. If battery electric vehicles have an Achilles heel, it is that they take longer to recharge than it takes to fill a typical gas tank. New technologies are on the horizon, however, which may reduce charging times significantly, particularly from Israeli company Store Dot.

“GM is a trusted partner on the industrial side and after extensive research, Navistar selected GM to collaborate on fuel cell technology due to the company’s global leadership in this space,” said Lisboa, citing the automaker’s decades of research and development of hydrogen fuel cells. GM has previously partnered with the US Army, Honda and France’s Liebherr Aerospace, among others companies.

Scania Says No Thanks

General Motors and Navistar have been involved in the trucking industry for a long time. One assumes they know what they are doing. But on the other side of the Atlantic, CleanTechnica correspondent Maximilian Holland reports that Scania, one of the largest truck manufacturers not located in America, recently announced it is shutting down its fuel cell truck program with this rather stunning statement:

Scania has invested in hydrogen technologies and is currently the only heavy-duty vehicle manufacturer with vehicles in operations with customers. The engineers have gained valuable insights from these early tests and efforts will continue. However, going forward the use of hydrogen for such applications will be limited since three times as much renewable electricity is needed to power a hydrogen truck compared to a battery electric truck. A great deal of energy is namely lost in the production, distribution, and conversion back to electricity.

Repair and maintenance also need to be considered. The cost for a hydrogen vehicle will be higher than for a battery electric vehicle as its systems are more complex, such as an extensive air- and cooling system. Furthermore, hydrogen is a volatile gas which requires more maintenance to ensure safety.

What they are saying is, we tried it, some trucking companies have tried it, and the technology is just not competitive with battery electric trucks. Yes, the time to recharge is an issue but that is a problem that will be solved. Even with that drawback, the evidence in favor of batteries is so overwhelming that barking up the fuel cell tree is a decision that has no support from the results of real world testing. Scania goes on to say,

The rapid development of electric solutions for heavy duty vehicles includes the fast advancement of battery technology in respect of energy storage capacity per kg. Charging time, charging cycles and economics per kg are improving rapidly. This means these solutions will become more cost effective, primarily in repetitive and predictable applications. They will gradually overtake Scania’s industry-leading fossil and biofuel powered solutions in most transport applications. In a few years’ time, Scania plans to introduce long distance electric trucks that will be able to carry a total weight of 40 tonnes for 4.5 hours, and fast charge during the drivers’ compulsory 45-minute rest.

That last part is significant. All the hoopla about faster refueling times with hydrogen ignores the fact that truck drivers are not allowed to drive an unlimited number of hours without rest. The regulations may vary from country to country but no nation permits drivers to sit behind the wheel of an 80,000 lb vehicle for 10 to 12 hour stints. The danger to the driving public is just too great, which means the whole rapid refill argument is really irrelevant.

Just like 8 tracks vs. cassettes, betamax vs. VHS, and floppy discs vs. CD-ROMs, technology wars are being fought all the time. In this case, General Motors seems to have decided to back the wrong horse but the future is hard to predict. Hydrogen may be the wave of the future but would you put money on it? No, me neither.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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