Researchers put kibosh on hydrogen road freight transport

Low energy efficiency compared with battery tech is raised

Researchers put kibosh on hydrogen road freight transport
NZ’s ETrucks battery swap electric truck


Australian energy academics have discounted the push towards hydrogen as a road transport fuel.

While pointing to its importance in other fields, such as ‘green steel’, University of Technology Sydney adjunct associate professor Robin Smit and PhD candidate Enoch Zhao, along with Swinburne University of Technology professor of future urban mobility Hussein Dia see hydrogen for road transport, including heavy vehicles, as transitional at best.

The dissenting opinion comes at a time when the federal government has banked on hydrogen as a priority low emissions technology, with a focus on hydrogen refuelling infrastructure for major freight routes and other road corridors.

"Hydrogen may play a larger role in the long-haul truck market, as its stated benefits include a long drive range and short refuelling times, which are important for this sector," the researchers said.

Read about NSW's green hydrogen supply effort, here

"But hydrogen competes with a dynamic and fast-moving electric truck market which shows significant and continuous annual improvements in battery energy density, and prices. What’s more, truck makers – such as Daimler, MAN, Renault, Scania and Volvo – have indicated they see an all-electric future.

"The often-stated benefits of hydrogen dissipate when compared with alternative electric truck technology. This includes battery swapping, which allows for short refuelling times, and the development of e-highways (roads that automatically recharge vehicles when they drive along it).

"Likewise, the battery swapping network in China already dwarfs the hydrogen refuelling network, although the system is still in its infancy."

In this, they cite figures from the China Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure Promotion Alliance (EVCIPA) and technologies research firm BloombergNEF showing Chinese batter swapping stations at more than 550 and global hydrogen refuelling stations at around 650.

The researchers also critique the energy efficiency of hydrogen in transport.

Hydrogen is not an energy source, it is an energy carrier. This means it needs to be generated, compressed or liquefied, transported and converted back into useful energy – and each step of the process incurs a substantial energy loss.

In fact, hydrogen vehicles and vehicles that run on petrol or diesel have a similarly low energy performance: just 15-30% of the available energy in the fuels is used for actual driving. Compare this to battery electric vehicles, which use 70-90% of the available energy.

In other words, the amount of renewable energy required for a green hydrogen vehicle to drive one kilometre is the same as what’s required for three electric vehicles to drive the same distance.

Other problems identified include

  • leakage during production, transport and use
  • that it is "a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide"
  • the amount of renewable electricity needed to make its production worthwhile
  • its heavy reliance on clean water.

On the last point, the trio stated: "A single hydrogen fuel cell car requires about 9 litres of clean, demineralized water for every 100km driven. For a large truck, this would be over 50 litres per kilometre."

They advocate a ‘horses for courses’ approach, with ‘green hydrogen’ focused on transport modes where battery electrification is less viable, such as shipping and aviation, rather than road transport, where battery electric propulsion is developing rapidly.

The full commentary, published in the Conversation, can be found here.

New Zealand view

Meanwhile, our New Zealand sister publication, has highlighted a battery-swapping initiative in that country.

"Auckland’s ETrucks has announced that it’s set to import a semi-robotic gantry from China that can lift out and replace a two-and-a-half-tonne truck battery while you wait," Former Road Transport Forum (RT) CEO and newly appointed Road Transport Association New Zealand (RTANZ) CEO Nick Leggett wrote.

Leggett continued: "At this stage, ETrucks expects interest will come from infrastructure projects, a port or container facility, dairy factory, or large trucking companies making metro deliveries.

"For the application to work for intercity and linehaul operators, traditional retail fuel outlets will need to buy into the concept."

Interestingly, ETrucks also has a hydrogen prime mover on offer and Leggett is far from convinced hydrogen is unviable in NZ.


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