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After a bumpy start, the US startup Nikola is closing in on its vision of hydrogen fuel cell trucks, fueled by green hydrogen.

Clean Transport

New (Green) Hydrogen Fuel Cell Trucks, New Hope For Nikola

After a bumpy start, the US startup Nikola is closing in on its vision of hydrogen fuel cell trucks, fueled by green hydrogen.

The US startup Nikola got off to a rough start after it launched in 2014, but things have been looking up for the zero emission automaker of late. The company is finally on track to bring its promised Tre hydrogen fuel cell truck to the market for long-distance shipping, and the company’s green hydrogen plans seem to be panning out, too.

US Fuel Cell Truck Startup Steps In (& Out Of) Quicksand

Nikola’s various forays into the BEV and FCEV fields began crossing the CleanTechnica radar with regular frequency by 2016. The company seemed ready to compete in the zero emission shipping marketplace, highlighted by an 800-truck commitment from Anheuser-Busch in 2018.

However, the bloom soon fell off the rose. In September of 2020, former CEO Trevor Milton stepped down after being accused of fraud, investors fled, orders were canceled, relationships were dropped, and it almost looked like the company was ready to give up the ghost.

That would have been a little premature. Last September, Nikola began selling a battery-electric version of its Tre long haul truck in Europe. In December, Los Angeles International Airport also took delivery of a Tre BEV, taking advantage of a $120,000 rebate courtesy of California’s voucher incentive program.

CleanTechnica’s Jo Borrás has also noted that Nikola trucks qualify for “massive incentives” in New York State, setting the stage for future sales in the US.

Green Hydrogen: You Gotta Belieeeeve!

Nikola’s earlier efforts were also hampered by the hydrogen question. When Nikola first launched in 2014, the idea of a hydrogen fuel cell truck was not a particularly sustainable one. Natural gas was (and is) the primary source of the global hydrogen supply, along with other fossil sources. All else being equal, that gives the decarbonization edge to battery-electric vehicles.

Right around Nikola’s launch, though, CleanTechnica began taking note of some interesting developments in the power-to-gas field that indicated hydrogen could shake free of fossil sourcing sometime way off in the future. By 2019, the timeline for sustainable hydrogen seemed to be accelerating, and the green hydrogen market is now earning respect from energy policy makers and other renewable energy stakeholders.

Nikola Plans On More Green Hydrogen For Fuel Cell Trucks

Nikola did include green hydrogen in its long range plans from the beginning, but until recently it seemed more likely that the company’s fuel cell trucks would depend on fossil-sourced hydrogen once they hit the road.

That may be so, at least in the short term. However, Nikola has set the wheels in motion to step up the supply of green hydrogen.

In December, Nikola hooked up with another US fuel cell startup, Plug Power, a company that launched with an initial focus on fuel cells for zero emission forklifts. By 2020, Plug Power was pivoting into hydrogen production and envisioning fuel cells for everything, with an assist from green hydrogen.

The December announcement commits Plug Power to buy up to 75 Tre hydrogen fuel cell trucks over the next three years. Plug will pair the fuel cell trucks with its liquid hydrogen tankers, forming a delivery network that dovetails with Nikola’s plans to establish a green hydrogen hub in Buckeye, Arizona.

“Plug has been selected to provide its fully integrated liquefaction system for the project which will be engineered to produce 30 metric-tons per day in its first phase, scaling up to 150 metric-tons per day,” Nikola elaborated.

Nikola anticipates that the supply-and-offtake partnership will provide it with at least 100 metric-tons per day of hydrogen, and that’s just for starters.  If all goes according to plan, Nikola will source more hydrogen from Plug as the latter expands its network to multiple locations.

The Plug Power Angle

Like Nikola, Plug Power seemed to be hitting the brakes just a few years ago, but its more recent focus on producing green hydrogen seems to have turned things around.

Among the highlights this year is a green hydrogen supply deal with Amazon, which builds on an earlier fuel cell forklift collaboration with Amazon that dates back to 2016.

In another interesting development, Plug Power has also latched on to the connection between offshore wind farms and green hydrogen. The company recently collaborated with the green H2 firm Lhyfe to engineer an electrolyzer system that produces green hydrogen on a floating platform, powered by a wind turbine. The setup, at dockside in Saint-Nazaire, France, is said to be the “first electrolyzer operating on a floating platform under extreme conditions.”

“The project, named ‘Sealhyfe,’ paves the way for leveraging offshore wind assets being built globally, and specifically, around the North Sea in Europe. The project will be operated for 6 months at the pier, then for 12 months off the coast of Le Croisic at the offshore testing site SEM-REV by French engineering school Centrale Nantes,” Plug explains.

A Memorandum of Understanding between Lhyfe and Plug commits the two companies to develop 300 megawatts’ worth of green hydrogen in Europe by 2025.

A Boost From The Biden Administration

Fuel cells were dismissed by another high profile automaker back in 2013, but support from the Biden administration could vindicate Nikola over the long run.

The Energy Department is administering an $8 billion grant program aimed at establishing a whole network of hydrogen hubs across the country, linking demand with supply and transportation. The program is funded through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which stipulates that fossil sources must play a role. However, the main emphasis is on green hydrogen and other non-fossil sources.

As for the Tre hydrogen fuel cell truck, Nikola is pitching the vehicle under a bundled lease setup that covers the cost of the truck, fuel, and maintenance in one monthly payment, with production expected in 2023.

According to Nikola, the bundle provides for a “competitive” total cost of ownership.

That remains to be seen, but the cost of green hydrogen is continuing to drop as the supply chain matures and electrolyzer technology improves. The Energy Department’s “Hydrogen Shot” program aims to bring the cost of non-fossil hydrogen down to $1.00 per kilo, an 80% drop from its current level.

Much activity is taking place around efficiency improvements for electrolyzers. An interesting development in that area comes from a team of engineers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, which recently announced that they have deployed sound waves to increase the efficiency of an electrolyzer by 14 times.

“They say their invention offers a promising way to tap into a plentiful supply of cheap hydrogen fuel for transportation and other sectors, which could radically reduce carbon emissions and help fight climate change,” RMIT enthused.

In another show of support for hydrogen fuel cell trucks and other vehicles, the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory is working on a new, cost-cutting hydrogen fuel station compressor that provides for more efficient refueling. The technology has been transferred to the firm PDC Machines for commercialization.

Photo: Tre hydrogen fuel cell truck (sleeper cab version) courtesy of Nikola.

 
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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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