From 2040, the sale of new diesel-powered lorries will be banned in the UK. Currently, electric power alone doesn’t work for long-distance road freight, but zero emission trucks using hydrogen look promising.
The market for hydrogen fuel cell cars may have stalled (too few cars, too expensive, no infrastructure), but major HGV makers and governments are investing in hydrogen vehicles.
Electric power from batteries is a viable solution for shorter/medium-range vehicles such as city buses and refuse collection where they can return to the same depot for easy recharging. As battery technology and charging infrastructure develops, it will also be used for longer and heavier road transport.
However, hydrogen-powered fuel cells are a potential zero-emissions solution for heavy-duty and long-haul truck transport, where good electrical charging infrastructure is hard to come by or the size of the battery required to power the tractor unit would be too unwieldy.
Unlike batteries, which store electricity from an external source, fuel cells make their own electricity onboard from stored hydrogen in an electrochemical process. In an HGV, a fuel cell could power a smaller, lighter battery but still give a range of up to 800km (about 500 miles) says Volvo. That exceeds the range of today’s electric cars.
All fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) run on electricity produced in a hydrogen-powered fuel cell – a set of proton exchange membrane electrodes that mix hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. Some of that electricity is used immediately and some is stored in a battery. Electricity generated by recapturing brake energy is also stored in the battery. The only output is water.
Hydrogen is used because it’s a great energy carrier, meaning a small amount can release a lot of energy to drive the vehicle. That also means hydrogen is highly explosive if it leaks, but modern hydrogen fuel tanks are just as safe – if not safer – than diesel tanks. Hyundai claims that its hydrogen tanks are massively reinforced to withstand even bullets.
Hydrogen HGVs now
In 2020, the Hyundai Xcient Fuel Cell truck (above) became the world’s first mass produced hydrogen HGV in and the South Korean company has supplied them to Europe (though not the UK), North America and China.
Hyundai is trialling its trucks in California in partnership with manufactures of filling pumps and stations. Around 200 have already passed field trials in Switzerland for short-haul work. Twin 90kW fuel stacks deliver 180kW of emissions-free power and a driving range of 400km (about 250 miles).
The hydrogen tanks are stacked behind the cab wall, the fuel stack between the front wheels, and battery and electric motor ahead of the rear wheels. You can’t buy the trucks but operators use them on a pay-as-you-go basis. Refuelling a full tank of hydrogen is claimed to take about eight to 20 minutes, depending on the ambient temperature.
In the UK, Essex start-up Tevva expects to sell up to 1,000 electric trucks in 2023 and has added a hydrogen fuel cell system to its battery-electric HGV design, the first hydrogen and electric-powered lorry to be mass-produced in the UK.
According to Tevva, the 7.5-tonne hydrogen-electric truck can be driven for up to 310 miles, using what it describes as a hydrogen fuel cell range extender. The Battery charge time to 90% is claimed to be five hours, the H2 refuelling time ten minutes. First deliveries are planned to start in summer 2023.
Further ahead and with a futuristic design, British commercial vehicle start-up Hydrogen Vehicle Systems (HVS) has gained £6.6 million of government funding to produce the world’s first self-driving, hydrogen-powered HGV and it will begin trials next year in partnership with supermarket giant Asda. The funding will go towards the development of two prototype vehicles.
An unclear future
Big name European truck manufacturers have been experimenting with hydrogen trucks in recent years even if their production plans are ambiguous. As we reported last year, Sweden’s Volvo has started to test tractor units using the technology, with the aim of vehicles going on sale in the second half of this decade.
The two fuel cell units mounted in the test trucks generate 300kW of electricity and Volvo says its trucks will be able to offer a capacity of 65 tonnes or even higher and an operational range comparable to diesel trucks of up to 1,000km (620 miles), with refuelling taking less than 15 minutes.
The fuel cells are being developed by Cellcentric, a joint venture between Volvo and Daimler Truck AG. Cellcentric plans one of Europe’s largest production facilities for fuel cells specifically designed for use in heavy vehicles but for now, as with cars the refuelling infrastructure isn’t in place.
The major truck manufacturers in Europe, also backed by Daimler Truck AG and Volvo Group, are calling for the setup of around 300 high-performance hydrogen refuelling stations suitable for heavy-duty vehicles by 2025 and of around 1,000 hydrogen refuelling stations no later than 2030 in Europe.
German giant MAN Truck & Bus is focussed on series production of heavy e-trucks in Munich from 2024 but keeping its options open on hydrogen. It sees fuel cell trucks soon reaching up to 1,000km (more than 600 miles) on a tankful, twice the realistic range for an electric truck, but says advances in battery technology over the coming years will increase their range.
MAN is also researching hydrogen-powered trucks but on a very small scale – five German customers in mid-2024. It’s sceptical on hydrogen’s truck prospects as it says on its website: ‘The disadvantage of hydrogen technology is that it is relatively inefficient, because hydrogen production wastes a great deal of energy.
Above all, however, energy costs during operation are significantly higher. Another key issue is the lack of infrastructure – and of green [renewable] hydrogen. It can currently only be produced and transported at great expense.’
It remains to be seen how much headway the hydrogen fuel cell truck will make in terms of the all-important overall costs. In 2022 a report by the International Transport Forum (ITF), an intergovernmental thinktank, said that hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are ‘cost competitive in only a small number of marginal cases that assume ambitiously low hydrogen fuel costs and very conservative assumptions for battery electric vehicles (BEVs).
This suggests that FCEVs might play a niche role in the future fleet of heavy-duty road vehicles, which in turn raises doubts about whether large-scale hydrogen refuelling infrastructure would be sufficiently utilised.’
Oddly enough, despite the consensus that future HGVs (and also LCVs) will be powered by a mixture of electric and hydrogen fuel cells, the combustion engine may also have a future. DAF has been testing using hydrogen (provided it’s green) as a fuel for the combustion engine.
The advantages are eliminating the heavy battery, reduced cooling requirements and lower sensitivity to hydrogen. Its DAF XF H2 Innovation Truck with a hydrogen internal combustion engine won the 2022 European Truck Innovation Award. Together with Toyota and Shell, DAF’s parent company PACCAR has started extensive trials with hydrogen-powered trucks with sophisticated fuel cell technology in the port of Los Angeles.