Signs that a fuel cell truck revolution is coming to the US have been few and far between. Nevertheless, activity is finally beginning to pick up. Toyota has just jumped into the pool with both feet first, but the company better not look back. Something might be gaining on it.
A Whole New Fuel Cell Truck Ecosystem
Hydrogen emits just water and no airborne pollutants when deployed in a fuel cell to generate electricity, but it is produced mainly from natural gas, along with coal to a lesser extent.
The fossil energy supply chain puts hydrogen fuel cell trucks at a disadvantage, compared to charging up an EV with electricity from renewable resources. In recent years, though, the cost of more sustainable hydrogen has come down and new solutions are emerging.
One part of the new, more sustainable hydrogen supply chain involves squeezing hydrogen from biogas, derived from organic matter. New York City, San Antonio, Dallas, and Philadelphia are among the municipal early adopters seeking to make hydrogen bank from their organic wastewater. Livestock operations, other agricultural wastes, and landfills are among other biogas resources.
Toyota has been pursuing the agricultural biogas angle through the Tri-Gen project, which is a key element in the company’s efforts to decarbonize its Toyota Logistics Services vehicle processing facility at the Port of Long Beach, in California.
The Tri-Gen project showcases integrated biogas-to-hydrogen technology developed by the US company FuelCell Energy. Construction began in 2017 and was declared to be complete earlier this week by Toyota and FuelCell.
Tri-Gen deploys agricultural biowaste from in-state sources to produce renewable hydrogen as fuel for Toyota’s fuel cell vehicles, including the Mirai sedan and a new Class 8 fuel cell truck, as well as a hydrogen fuel station to keep them all running.
Tri-Gen’s hydrogen fuel cells will also be used to generate electricity to run the Long Beach facility. Any excess can be shunted back to the grid.
The fuel cells will also emit about 1,400 gallons of water daily when in operation. The water will be used for washing vehicles at Long Branch, relieving local freshwater resources from that duty.
Class 8 Fuel Cell Trucks & Pickup Trucks, Too
Toyota launched its Class 8 hydrogen fuel cell truck venture in 2017 under the name Project Portal, and things seem to be moving along. Last spring the California Air Resources Board certified the company’s hydrogen fuel cell powertrain kit, a soup-to-nuts system that includes storage tanks, fuel cell stacks, batteries, electric motors and transmission.
By offering an all-in-one package, Toyota aims to attract truck and bus makers that would otherwise lean towards diesel technology. Toyota plans to start manufacturing the kit at its factory in Kentucky before the end of this year.
Keep an eye out for the first off-takers. Toyota has already been partnering on fuel cell trucks with Kenworth and Peterbilt. Both companies are branches of the PACCAR firm, which has received a grant from the US Department of Energy’s “Super Truck 3” program to build fuel cell trucks.
Class 8 trucks are not the only new fuel cell trucks in Toyota’s sights. Last year, the company also began dropping hints about delivering a fuel cell pickup truck to the market. Sure enough, earlier this week it unveiled the latest prototype version of the new truck, under the name Hilux.
“The new powertrain uses core elements from the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell electric sedan — technology that has proved its quality in almost 10 years of commercial production. When driven, the fuel cell produces no tailpipe emissions other than pure water,” Toyota explained.
The Mirai connection is interesting because Toyota has suffered through a heaping ton of criticism over its years-long struggle to sell its Mirai fuel cell sedans in the US. The Mirai may yet fall into the dustbin of automotive history, but its fuel cell innards could carry on life in the strong market for pickup trucks.
More Fuel Cell Trucks For The USA
While Toyota has been busy, other automakers have also been chasing the electric fuel cell truck dream.
The first name that comes to mind is the US startup Nikola. The company has bounced back after a series of ups and downs (see more CleanTechnica coverage here), with the ups including a new fuel cell partnership with Bosch. The company began producing commercial versions of its Class 8 fuel cell truck over the summer and expects customer deliveries to begin later this year.
At last count, Nikola had 18 customers lined up for a total of 202 vehicles. The company credits the California Air Resources Board with providing hefty financial incentives to boost demand.
Not to be outdone, Hyundai teased its XCIENT Class 8 fuel cell truck for the US market a couple of years ago. It followed through last spring, introducing the new fuel cell tractor at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in California.
Daimler Truck North America is another one to watch. The company is also participating in the Energy Department’s Super Truck 3 program in a team with Oregon State University. The team is tasked with engineering a Class 8 fuel cell truck with a 600-mile range. The idea is to meet, then beat, diesel trucks on payload capability and other performance parameters.
But What About The Fuel?
Circling around to the hydrogen fuel station question, that’s a good question. Fleet owners that already have fuel depots may have an opportunity to install their own hydrogen stations, depending on the cost and opportunity.
Public fuel stations are few and far between. However, the network is beginning to grow. Most of the activity is taking place in California, where the company FirstElement Fuel, for example, plans to increase its public hydrogen fuel stations from 31 to 80 by next year.
Hyundai has already partnered with FirstElement Fuel for access to the True Zero hydrogen fuel stations, which are in use by the three XCIENT trucks currently being tested on California roads.
Mobile fuel stations are another solution. The XCIENT test run also includes fueling up at FirstElement’s mobile station, which is also providing fuel to other trucks in development.
Jumping the gun somewhat, Nikola is already anticipating that the logistics of transporting hydrogen to fuel stations and other facilities could help drum up sales of its Tre Class 8 fuel cell truck. Last December, the company announced a 75-truck deal with the US green hydrogen firm Plug Power, which plans to use them for hauling its liquid hydrogen tankers.
Another twist is the micro-mini all-in-one green hydrogen generator and fueling station. The US firm IVYS Energy Systems has developed one small enough to fit in a parking spot. The integrated system deploys solar energy to jolt green hydrogen gas from water.
The Extreme E off-road battery-electric racing circuit has also spotted an opportunity to showcase innovative fuel cell technology that could some day make its way to the US. In 2022, Extreme E deployed transportable EV charging stations, each running on fuel cells powered by green hydrogen, for participants to recharge their batteries in remote off-road locations.
Last year Extreme E went a step farther and announced that its 2024 schedule will include a hydrogen fuel cell race called Extreme H, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Photo: Tri-Gen decarbonization facility featuring a hydrogen fuel station for fuel cell vehicles (courtesy of Toyota).
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