Will Hydrogen Power Heavy Transportation?

Ally Winning, European Editor, PSD



Ally Winning, European Editor, PSD

­One of the most interesting technological stories in the world today is the electrification of transportation. For light passenger vehicles, it looks very much like EVs will be the winner. Even though some vehicle manufacturers have developed hydrogen powered cars, such as the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo, and they operate very well, there is very little infrastructure to support them. It is much the same problem we are experiencing with electric vehicles at the moment. The main difference is that in the case of EVs, vehicle manufacturers, governments and private organizations are investing heavily in charging stations, and most countries will have a comprehensive network of chargers in the near-term future.

On the other hand, the rollout of hydrogen infrastructures is not progressing as well as has been hoped. In some cases it is even regressing, such as in California, where Shell has closed all of its hydrogen depots. There are also difficulties in both the supply chain and with reliability for hydrogen fuel stations - according to Autoweek, as many as half of California’s hydrogen stations are classed as offline at any one time. However, light passenger automobiles are not the only classification for vehicles and hydrogen may make more sense with other designs. These include trucks, buses, aircraft and industrial plant.

Hydrogen has the potential to be the ideal solution for heavier vehicles, especially those that need a higher level of power for applications that require a lot of torque, which is an area in where electricity struggles in current designs. Industrial hydrogen vehicles do not need to rely on public depots as a lot of them operate from a set base, for example, a bus station, a building site, or an airport, where it would be possible to construct a hydrogen depot.

There are drawbacks though, and one of their main problems with hydrogen at the moment is that it is generated using fossil fuels, which can be a very environmentally unfriendly process. However, better methods of generating hydrogen from renewable sources are being developed at the moment, and when they are introduced, hydrogen will possibly be even greener than EVs when taking the whole supply chain into account. In some cases, it may even be possible to generate at least some of the hydrogen on-site using solar and wind power. Of course, that is true for electric power as well, and there is currently a decent sized market for off-grid charging in industrial applications and the infrastructure is already on the market.

The next few years will be vital for the advancement of hydrogen as a green fuel, and the end result will be determined by how quickly green hydrogen can be implemented economically, and how fast viable hydrogen depots can be designed and deployed. If there are any delays, then electricity will again be the winner and workarounds will have to be made for applications that require the torque that hydrogen can easily supply.