Monday, October 1, 2018

Hydrogen or Lithium - Which Will Be Primary Fuel Source for Road Haulage Trucks of the Future?

Bets Placed on Either Side by Governments, Ports and HGV Makers
Shipping News Feature
WORLDWIDE – Even before Elon Musk described the concept of hydrogen becoming the principal vehicular fuel of the future as 'silly, mind bogglingly stupid and fool cells' a debate was raging over the practicality of the odourless, colourless and highly flammable gas, set against the battery powered cars and road haulage trucks of the future produced by the likes of the Tesla boss' company.

Lately the stakes have risen sharply with not only corporations but governments placing their bets on their favourite, many opting to back both horses in a bid to get a result. So what are the comparative merits of each? It seem much depends on your optimism or otherwise when imagining the technologies of the future.

At first glance hydrogen has clear advantages as a vehicular fuel. It has a specific energy output of 40,000 watt hours per kilogramme compared to less than 280 with a lithium ion battery. The hydrogen adds no weight to the electrically powered vehicle, one of the key problems if you want your car or truck to have more than a minimal range. Hydrogen fuel celled vehicles can cover vastly more distance than their battery powered equivalents.

Refuelling takes about the same as a conventional internal combustion fuel such as petrol whereas, even with the latest quick charge options, battery charging is a comparatively lengthy process, and has to be performed much more often. So why even bother with the cumbersome battery option?

Set against these advantages for the gas is the currently high cost of production, simply because of the amount of energy used to produce hydrogen, means a cost ‘at the pump’ currently around eight times higher than electrical recharging. This is the kernel of Musk’s argument, he cannot foresee any way you can produce the quantities of hydrogen required without using vast amounts of electrical energy to separate it out from water.

This view however is not shared by many who have confidence new technologies will reduce the costs. The lure of hydrogen is obvious, it is the most abundant element in the universe, present in all water, but the most common form of commercial extraction, steam reforming, actually uses an energy source, natural gas, with a better energy yield than the finished product, and produces considerable pollution making it impractical.

Musk envisages that all vehicular use hydrogen will be made by conventional electrolysis, separating the gas from water using electricity but now more advanced, and efficient techniques are being investigated and employed. Electrolysis using a polymer exchange membrane (PEM) is more efficient, losing only around 20% of the energy which can be generated by the extracted hydrogen and this technique is predicted to become more efficient although it will still lag behind lithium-ion in terms of efficiency, Li retains around 99% of the energy used to produce it.

The next point to consider is logistics, most PEM plants currently use the hydrogen produced directly on site. Storing and shipping brings a whole new set of problems – and costs. Electricity flows directly from anywhere it is wired to, vehicles can be charged at work, at home or on the road at a service station.

So who is backing hydrogen despite all its potential problems? Well it seems lots of people, in 2008 Swedish conglomerate Volvo opted to form PowerCell which develops and manufactures fuel cell stacks and systems which generate electricity and heat without any emissions other than water. The company claims the items produced are compact, modular and scalable, and thus easy to adapt to both static and mobile customer needs.

Volvo are not alone in taking this seriously, Autostack Industrie is a project supported by the German Ministry of Transport and aims to develop a fuel cell for the German automotive industry that can be commercialised until after 2020 and PowerCell was appointed as a formal partner in 2017. Notably among other project partners are German vehicle manufacturers BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen and the German wing of Ford.

The Autostack Industrie project has received €21.3 million in funding under the German program National Innovation Program Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology, NIP (Nationales Innovation Program Wasserstoff und Brennstoffzellentechnologie).

Japan is another country leading the way in hydrogen development, Honda and Toyota have both produced cars powered by the gas, with the advances also applied to trucks, and the government has moved to make it easier for companies to build the facilities necessary to ensure supplies. These measures will be essential if the country is to reach its target of 40,000 such vehicles on its roads by 2020 and the two aforementioned car makers have linked up with Nissan and French group Air Liquide to complete the next tranche of filling stations. In the US we have seen ports take up the cause as well as government funding.

Back in Europe PowerCell has just initiated a cooperation with the technology company Semcon to streamline the production of its cells using automated robot technology. Semcon is to deliver concepts and production equipment and is responsible for the installation and deployment of a semi-automatic sample production of fuel cells. Delivery is imminent and before installation at PowerCell, Gothenburg virtual simulations have been made where the entire production process is visualised and tested. Per Wassén, CEO of PowerCell, commented:

“We have worked with Semcon for a long time, and we consider this to be a natural choice of partner now that we are scaling up our production. Semcon has the broad expertise and experience that we need in automation and production development.”

So how optimistic are you? It is doubtful that hydrogen prices will get any lower than 3.5 times the equivalent cost of electricity in the foreseeable future when it comes to fuelling vehicles. Production and distribution costs are liable to ensure that no matter how brightly your take on coming technologies. Set against that, the gas is much more efficient than its hydrocarbon predecessors, despite failing in comparisons with electric vehicles, and the ability to drive 3 – 400 miles on a tank full might well be enough to persuade many consumers.

Electrically powered vehicles are definitely an option for urban delivery cycles but when long distance road haulage is involved 3 hour delays to recharge the batteries are simply unacceptable and are a problem that will need to be overcome, together with their replacement cost, if electricity is to win the HGV fuel war of the future as against hydrogen, or indeed other available gases.

The final question must be however – how are governments going to collect all that tax revenue they will lose if hydrocarbons are entirely replaced by whatever proves to be truly the fuel of the future?

Photo: Courtesy of the Pure Energy Centre.