The Volvo Group really is serious about bringing hydrogen fuel cell trucks to the truck driving world, and now it is reaching out to gather heavy duty construction machines into its zero emission embrace. Its subsidiary Volvo Construction Equipment is all excited about a new fuel cell test lab that will speed up the R&D, and CTO Thomas Bitter graciously shared some thoughts on that with CleanTechnica. Now can it do something about those noisy, diesel-spewing ice cream trucks?
Big Hydrogen Fuel Cell Machines For Your Friendly Neighborhood Construction Site
Before we launch in, let’s clarify that Volvo CE is part of the Volvo Group, which makes practically everything except Volvo-branded cars. The cars come under a different Volvo headquartered in Sweden, which is currently owned by the Geely Motors brand in China, having purchased it from Ford about 10 years ago. Volvo Group is also headquartered in Sweden, but it is different. Got all that?
Following is an email interview, slightly edited for length.
CleanTechnica: Why focus on fuel cells in the construction machine area, instead of battery packs?
Bitter: We see hydrogen fuel cell technology as a key enabler of sustainable solutions for heavier construction machines, and this investment provides us with another vital tool in our work to reach the Science-Based Targets and our ambition to be 100% fossil free by 2040.
While battery electric solutions are ideal for urban construction and other use cases, the size of the batteries are simply too impractical for larger machines and heavy construction equipment, which is where hydrogen powered fuel cells will complement battery electric powertrains in the electromobility area.
Battery-electric machines will mainly fit with shorter distances and lower loads, while fuel cell electric machines fit perfectly well in more demanding applications, such as long haul, long distances and short refueling stops.
Have Some Green Hydrogen With Your Fuel Cell Machines
CleanTechnica: How does green hydrogen factor in?
Bitter: Hydrogen can be manufactured in many different ways and we absolutely believe it’s important to have a life-cycle approach in the entire value chain.
This means that not only will the research and development carried out at the test lab be dedicated to producing fossil-free construction solutions, we will also look at how the hydrogen itself has been produced, and strive for so called “green” hydrogen produced from renewable energy.
CleanTechnica: What are the advantages of green hydrogen over hydrogen sourced from natural gas?
Bitter: We absolutely will promote the use of green hydrogen in order to reduce the carbon footprint from a life-cycle perspective. In order to do so, renewable energy needs to be used in the process of generating the hydrogen…We will also benefit from the newly started company cellcentric, which will accelerate the development, production and commercialization of fuel cell systems for use in long-haul trucking and other applications such as construction equipment.
Looking ahead to the long-term, there exists the potential, especially in certain segments of our industry, for large mining or construction sites to have their own infrastructure using wind or solar power to create their own green hydrogen.
Volvo Group Still Hearts Batteries
If all goes according to plan, that noisy construction site down the block won’t be spewing diesel fumes into the sparkling green future. The new Volvo CE test lab is Volvo Group’s first dedicated R&D center for fuel cell technology, and it is not messing around.
“The dedicated lab, located at the Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE) Technical Center in Eskilstuna, Sweden, represents a big step forward in the company’s commitment to hydrogen. The lab is also the first facility in Volvo Group to be testing complete fuel cell units, and will as such be a strong contributor to the company’s dedication to fuel cell technology,” Volvo explained earlier this year, when it announced plans for the facility.
ICE and battery-electric fans, don’t lose heart, because Volvo CE is positioning hydrogen fuel cells as one leg of a three-legged stool. The company will also lean heavily on EV batteries and sustainable ICE fuels to achieve carbon neutral status by 2040.
What Is This cellcentric Of Which You Speak?
Just a few years ago, fuel cell mobility was considered a laugh riot. Now everyone is getting into the act, including legacy automakers as well as startups with big ambitions. Since Bitter name-dropped “cellcentric” in the interview, let’s take a quick look at that venture.
Cellcentric (not to be confused with the biotech firm with a similar name) is a manufacturing mashup of Daimler Truck AG and the Volvo Group, aimed at both mobile and stationary fuel cell applications.
“As the pioneer in developing, manufacturing and repairing hydrogen fuel cell systems, our aggregates are applicable for any use case. They can be flexibly adapted to various use cases such as a clean powertrain in trucks and other commercial vehicles or as an emergency power supply of critical facilities in data centers,” the company explains, adding that “The ambition is to make cellcentric a leading global manufacturer of fuel cells, and thus help the world take a major step towards climate-neutral and sustainable transportation by 2050.”
What About A Fuel Cell Ice Cream Truck?
All of this is well and good, but we’re still waiting for someone to make a fuel cell ice cream truck. For that matter, fuel cell food trucks would also be cool. After all, who wants to breathe in diesel fumes while you’re waiting for your street food?
If we all wish really hard, perhaps Volvo Group will come up with one. After all, the company already makes trucks that carry cold food. How hard can it be?
Volvo already has a hand in the zero emission refrigerated truck field, right here in the US, through the battery-electric wing of Volvo Trucks USA. Just a few weeks ago, the leading US grocery chain Albertsons Companies got itself a mini-fleet of two Volvo VNR Electric trucks at its distribution center in Irvine, California, which it has tricked out with electric refrigerator units from the firm Advanced Energy Machines.
Okay, so two electric trucks does not sound very ambitious, but Albertsons is already looking forward to converting its entire fleet.
“This inaugural delivery, which took place on May 28, 2021 at a LEED-certified Albertsons store in Irvine, California, is an exciting step toward achieving the company’s sustainability goals,” Albertsons explained.
No kidding. “Albertsons Cos. operates 1,400 Class 8 trucks nationwide, all of which are certified under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) SmartWay program as meeting high transportation sustainability and efficiency standards,” Volvo added. “The Southern California fleet, which is made up entirely of trucks manufactured by Volvo Trucks, covers 335 stores in the region, running from the Central Coast to the California-Mexico border.”
Tim Burke, Albertsons vice president of transportation, emphasized that the trucks “will not only help improve air quality in the communities in which we operate, but the quiet motors will also provide a better working environment for our drivers and grocery store staff.”
Good! Now what about all those children standing in line at the ice cream truck? Must they forever breathe in diesel fumes while waiting for their sugar fix?
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Image: How a hydrogen fuel cell works, courtesy of Volvo CE