Hydrogen is getting hype and investment in Australia as a freight fuel of the future but not everyone is convinced
The alternative truck-propulsion outlook is beset with experts of various stripes debating battery electric vehicles (BEV) versus hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEV).
Interestingly, global truckmakers and their prospective disruptors are fuelling this development – the former by having something of a bet each way and the latter by having the two biggest names, Tesla and Nikola, championing one or the other.
This coalescing of positions – with the truckmakers settling on a mantra of battery electric for local and regional tasks and fuel cells for long-haul, or what passes for that in the US and Europe – has led to academics and experts to look deeper into the details.
This, while energy companies including, increasingly, those operating in Australia, are progressing plans to get the hydrogen supply infrastructure in position to support what state governments like to call the hydrogen economy.
THE LINFOX LOOK
This year, Linfox put the case for hydrogen while acknowledging the dichotomy with batteries.
“Hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) offer greater fuel efficiency than petrol or diesel powered vehicles, and are likely to be competitive on running costs compared with traditional fuel sources within the decade,” it says in its company publication.
“Electric vehicles are also a contender to gradually replace internal combustion engines. Both are advantageous for various transport requirements, and both offer emissions reduction, particularly if the hydrogen extraction and batteries use renewable energy.
“For linehaul tasks, FCEVs may be a better option, with greater mileage and a faster refuelling time than electric vehicles.
“The ‘fuel cell-hydrogen tank-battery’ combination in an FCEV is also much lighter than the stand-alone battery in an all-electric vehicle, which offers a payload benefit.
“For example, a battery-powered 20-tonne truck with a 960-kilometre range would require a 14-tonne battery.
“With an FCEV, though, only a bigger tank is required to carry the extra fuel.”
Linfox sees Perth-Port Hedland as a route where the promise of fuel-cell propulsion.
It points to simplicity and predictability along with traffic of about 1,000 trucks a day as potentially supporting an investment in hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, while a lack of rail covers any possible modal competition. Ships are not mentioned.
Also helping is that: “Storing, distributing and pumping hydrogen uses similar technologies as diesel, so there are no barriers there, but hydrogen’s low density does increase the costs and complexity.
“This barrier has been removed thanks to a recent CSIRO invention, which produces pure hydrogen at point of use by passing decomposing ammonia through a metal filter.
“Storing and transporting ammonia is far easier than hydrogen, reducing the costs of storage and distribution.”
Linfox’s view is more positive than some recent critical commentary from Australian academics.
Probably the most high-powered of these are the University of Queensland research fellow Jake Whitehead, Curtin University professor of sustainability Peter Newman and University of Western Australia professor of robotics and director of the WA Electric Vehicle Trial Thomas Bräunl.
In a piece on hydrogen as general energy source – “Time to get real: amid the hydrogen hype, let’s talk about what will actually work”, published on the The Conversation website, they argue developments are expected realistically to come to fruition decades into the future.
“As for trucks, the US Department of Energy does not expect hydrogen semi-trailers to be competitive with diesel until around 2050, mainly due to the high cost and low durability of hydrogen fuel cells,” they say.
“While hydrogen trucks may have a role to play in 20 to 30 years, this will be too late to help reach a 2050 net-zero target.
“As such, we must explore energy-efficient options already widely deployed overseas, including electric trucks, electrified roads and electrified trailers.”
However, with a view to a future where an Australian decarbonised hydrogen-export industry is actually built, they add that “if the development of hydrogen truck technology accelerates before 2050, renewable hydrogen would be available to power the significant number of semi-trailers that travel to and from shipping ports”.
Internationally, Dutch electric vehicle expert Auke Hoekstra of Eindhoven University of Technology and founder of a zero-emission energy and mobility simulations laboratory Zenmo is another who champions battery over fuel-cell propulsion. And he is no fan of ‘catenary’ or overhead highway electrification either.
When adding vehicle cost, maintenance, energy production, battery, actual infrastructure and projected infrastructure, he finds that, by 2025, the cost per kilometre of BEV in Europe is about US75 cents, internal combustion engine fuel at close to US$1.10 and hydrogen from fossil fuel at near US$1.50.
That said, he also acknowledges that BEVs are more a local or regional solution, where “80-90% of trucks drive 500–750km a day and come home to their depot”, than a long-haul, while emphasising that the former is where the most trucks work.
On the issue of weight, he says he and a colleague calculate that having a design where smaller batteries are located close to each of a heavy truck’s wheels can save 3 tonnes, or half that of a single 6 tonne battery needed to provide 1 MWh.
INFRASTRUCTURE AND SUPPLY
But the doubts show little promise of swaying either those in the hydrogen supply space or truck-makers.
Certainly other investors see the potential in the west, where WA premier Mark McGowan is pressing ahead with the ‘hydrogen revolution’ that his government wants the state to lead.
Music to WA government ears is the $350 million Arrowsmith Hydrogen Project, a proposed ‘green hydrogen’ production plant near Dongara, 320km north of Perth.
Arrowsmith is being developed by developed by a fairly new company, Infinite Blue Energy (IBE), led by founder and MD Stephen Gauld, pictured below, an energy industry executive of 20 years.
Crucially, its capacity of 25 tonnes of “zero carbon” green hydrogen a day is to be derived from renewable energy sources, including water, solar and wind, bolstered by an on-site battery.
IBE would not be drawn on the FCEV/BEV debate when ATN approached the firm.
But as ATN was doing so, listed UK engineering and production services firm Petrofac announced it had signed a front end engineering design (FEED) contract with IBE for Arrowsmith.
“Through the completion of the Arrowsmith project and IBE’s innovative business model, Australia can advance its interests on the global stage as a leader in the development of ground-breaking green hydrogen energy solutions
and accelerate the creation of a major employment strategy and industry for Australia in the immediate future,” Gauld says of the deal.
Back in July, it emerged that IBE had signed up with 18-month-old Melbourne-based charging and hydrogen refuelling firm NewVolt for 17 truck stations to be built on routes between eastern state capitals and Adelaide.
The first two are to be in Wodonga and Newcastle, and WA stations are to arrive in due course, the Renewables Now website reports.
More recently, it has sought Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) support while preparing to list on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX).
Meanwhile, there is a federal government appetite to explore the fuel, to the tune of the $300 million Advancing Hydrogen Fund.
As Hyundai Future Mobility and government relations senior manager and Australian Hydrogen Council director Scott Nargar told ATN sister publication WhichCar, the potential is huge.
“Definitely, the world is looking for Australia to be a leader here,” Nargar said, while adding a rider.
“Our neighbours around the Asia Pacific region are transitioning their transport and energy options to something cleaner and greener.
“People aren’t asking to buy dirty hydrogen, they want clean hydrogen but for that you need space. You need solar or wind resources and there’s nowhere better than Australia.”
TRUCK MAKERS FORCE THE FUEL PACE
So how are the heavy vehicle manufacturers giving the hydrogen story impetus, particularly over the past 12 months? Leaving aside Nikola for the moment, the dark horse in this race has been Hyundai.
It seems a marque can’t make waves in this space without an utterly futuristic design concept and, 12 months ago, the South Korean giant unveiled its one – the HDC-6 Neptune – at the North American Commercial Vehicle (NACV) Show.
The jury is out on how many of these slick futurist prime movers will hit the market, but even Nikola has become more conventional when linking with traditional truckmakers.
So it is that the first 50 prime movers and rigids Hyundai is sending to Switzerland, on its way to a promised 1,600 FCEVs in Europe are based on the existing decidedly normal Xcient.
Along with plans for expansion, including refuelling stations, in China and the US, it released specifications.
Though the specs were shy about its present range, Hyundai does claim 1,000km on a single charge for a 44-tonne gross combined weight semi for a coming updated vehicle, an e-axle and two 200kW fuel cell systems that are under development.
The new line-up will include 4×2 and 6×2 rigids and a 4×2 prime mover.
The fuel cell stack will provide 190kW and the Akasol battery will give 661V/73.2kWh.
Hyundai may yet have the Neptune up and running in the US but Daimler is keeping the wow factor of its Mercedes-Benz GenH2 truck well and truly alive.
It has been given a range of up to 1,000km-plus “for flexible and demanding long-haul transport”, with customer trials in 2023 and the start of series production in the second half of this decade.
That should be enough time for the more conventional-looking BEV 500km-range eActros to strut its stuff, with its production aimed at 2024.
Interestingly, parent-firm Daimler pivoted on its fuel-cell research direction and linked with Volvo to explore its potential rather than go it alone.
“For trucks to cope with heavy loads and long distances, fuel cells are one important answer and a technology where Daimler has built up significant expertise through its Mercedes-Benz fuel cell unit over the last two decades,” Daimler Truck chairman Martin Daum said at the time.
The series-production GenH2 Truck is to have a gross vehicle mass of 40 tonnes and a payload of 25 tonnes.
In a pre-series version, two electric motors are designed for a total of 2 x 230kW continuous power and 2 x 330kW maximum power. Torque is 2 x 1,577Nm and 2 x 2,071Nm respectively.
Kenworth joined with Toyota back in 2017 to look into fuel cell technology.
Toyota has scaled-up its proprietary fuel-cell technology from its Mirai passenger vehicle to develop an emission-free power source for a 36-tonne truck.
Dubbed ‘Project Portal’, Toyota plans to use the concept truck to conduct a feasibility study into the potential of fuel-cell technology in heavy-duty applications.
The hydrogen-fuelled truck is aimed at moving loads between the ports of Los Angeles and nearby Long Beach later this year.
According to Toyota, the truck generates more than 670hp (500kW) and nearly 1,800Nm from two Mirai fuel-cell stacks and a 12kW battery.
The concept’s gross combined weight capacity is more than 36.2 tonnes and it boasts an estimated range of 320km per charge, under normal operations.
Very late last year, Kenworth parent Paccar was linked with Deakin University’s Hydrogen Transition Centre (HTC) in the south-eastern Victorian town of Warrnambool
The HTC, which gained an initial $2 million in federal funding, is to be the first step in establishing a $20 million Hycel (formerly HyceL@Warrnambool) research and industry testing site.
Deakin vice-chancellor professor Iain Martin says the federal investment “will see our researchers partner with Australia’s leading truck manufacturer, Kenworth, as well as with industry leaders in hydrogen fuel-cells, electric vehicles and gas distribution”.
In January, Swedish firm Scania had grown its FCEV testing fleet with wholesaler Asko to four Scania G 350 rigids.
Immensely flexible on propulsion mode, including diesel, it is, like Daimler, of a horses-for-courses mindset.
The Asko rigids have powertrains of 290kW electric machine/210kW continuous output, two-speed transmission, 2,200Nm peak torque and an estimated range of 400–500km.
Like Scania, Isuzu is happy to look into the either type of electric propulsion but will not be stampeded into anything rash.
In January, the Japanese titan and Honda said they had signed an agreement to conduct joint research on heavy-duty trucks using fuel cell (FC) powertrains.
Isuzu adds there are still some issues that need to be addressed regarding use of FC and hydrogen energy, including cost and infrastructure.
The two makers aim to establish the foundation for FC powertrain and vehicle control technologies.
“Through this joint research, Isuzu and Honda will not only realise the clean, low-noise, low-vibration heavy-duty trucks customers are waiting for, but also promote expansive discussions by the industry so that the use of FC trucks and hydrogen energy can contribute to the future prosperity of the logistics industry and all other industries in our society and to the early realisation of hydrogen society,” they said.
Early this month, Toyota Motor North America (TMNA) and Hino USA agreed to jointly develop a class 8 heavy-duty ‘fuel cell electric truck’ (FCET) for the North American market as part of its Project Z zero emissions target that includes batteries, not least from Australia’s SEA Electric.
The prime mover is to be built on the foundations of the newly developed Hino XL Series chassis and the collaboration expands upon the existing effort to develop a 25-tonne FCET for the Japanese market that was announced earlier this year.
The Fuso Vision F-Cell FC light truck concept vehicle was launched at the Tokyo Motor Show last October.
The Vision F-Cell has maximum power of 135kW, with continuous split 75kW for FCs and 135kW from batteries.
Range is estimated to be 270–300km, with gross vehicle weight put at 7.5 tonnes.
Nikola has previously told ATN it intends to add Australia to its sales effort at some stage in the future. But while it
might be the strongest hydrogen proponent of the ‘disruptors’, things are less clear on what its existence means than it was last year.
Still, despite being put on the back foot by a short-selling campaign that questioned its assertions of technological progress, which led to the resignation of founder and executive chairman Trevor Milton, it does still have deals
with Iveco parent CNHI and General Motors.
Linking with the former puts it on a similar course to Hyundai, though the Koreans appear to have stolen a march on the European strategy.
Now, US fuel-cell truck operation Hyzon – making inroads into Australia with buses, and New Zealand, linking with Hiringa Energy for a heavy vehicle refuelling station network and fleet expansion – has found a massive ally in energy behemoth Total.
Truly, this is becoming a crowded market, here and elsewhere.