Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles: Marching Towards Cleaner Mobility

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles: Marching Towards Cleaner Mobility

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles: Marching towards Cleaner Mobility

Global auto majors such as Volvo Trucks, Toyota, Hino, Hyundai as well as Daimler Trucks AG have been intensively researching, forging partnerships as well as working on solutions to develop series production of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

Hyundai Motor Company has shipped its first lot of 10 XCIENT trucks out of total 50 trucks for Switzerland. The Korean auto giant claims that the world’s first heavy duty fuel cell truck XCIENT is particularly well-suited to commercial shipping and logistics due to long ranges and short refueling times. The dual-mounted fuel cell system provides adequate energy to drive heavy-duty trucks up and down the mountainous terrain in the region. Hyundai Motor is developing a long-distance tractor unit capable of travelling 1,000 kilometers on a single charge equipped with an enhanced fuel cell system with high durability and power, aimed at global markets, including North America and Europe.

XCIENT is powered by a 190-kW hydrogen fuel cell system with dual 95-kW fuel cell stacks. Seven large hydrogen tanks offer a combined storage capacity of around 32.09 kg of hydrogen. The driving range per charge for XCIENT Fuel Cell is about 400km*, which was developed with an optimal balance between the specific requirements from potential commercial fleet customers and the charging infrastructure in Switzerland. Refueling time for each truck takes approximately 8-20 minutes. The company plans to ship over 1,600 trucks by 2025.

Diesel as a fuel has been serving as the lifeline of heavy commercial vehicles that support an economy's survival and it is certainly difficult to think of an internal combustion engine without diesel in long haul transportation. As the auto sector and various governments around the world aim to decarbonise the transport industry, hydrogen as fuel is also being looked upon as a potential replacement for conventional fuels like diesel. It is true that the hydrogen technology is a costlier alike the electric vehicle (EV) technology; however, hydrogen as a fuel has been used to propel spacecrafts for a long time now, offers better mileage over diesel and EVs, and can also be a critical warrior in combating growing pollution problems across the world.

A fuel cell vehicle works somewhat similar to an internal-combustion engine except that the system doesn’t burn the hydrogen that it draws from a pressurised tank, but fuses it with oxygen to produce electricity to power an electric motor. The process takes place in a PEM (Polymer electrolyte membrane) fuel cell made up of sets of thin plates, separated by membranes. The only by-products that are generated when hydrogen is used to power a fuel cell are water and heat, thereby emitting no pollutants or greenhouse gases. Interestingly, 80 kg of hydrogen can deliver adequate energy for a truck to cover 800 km! The propulsion in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is electric, which results in no engine noise, a fast start and the possibility to recover braking energy similar to that of an electric truck. Hydrogen can also be used as an auxiliary fuel cell to extend range on a battery-powered electric vehicle.

Notably, hydrogen is a reactive element that often tends to erode other materials and is also highly flammable and these factors make it difficult to transport. Infrastructure required for hydrogen continues to be in a nascent stage and as there are just 337 hydrogen fuelling stations around the world, a majority of which are concentrated in Germany and Japan. Discussions have been on about using existing CNG infrastructure for transporting and storing hydrogen; however, this is not a good solution for fuel cells which run on clean hydrogen.

Although it is possible to distribute hydrogen through pipelines used for natural gas, most of the hydrogen used for fuel today is produced at large plants and subsequently transported with special liquid hydrogen trailers. Hydrogen can also be generated at refuelling stations through steam methane reforming (SMR) or electrolysis. But this approach is generally less effective and costly.

It may be worth recalling that earlier this year in April, CV industry giants Volvo Group and Daimler AG established a preliminary, non-binding joint venture for development as well as marketing of fuel cell systems to be deployed in heavy-duty commercial vehicles and other applications. Daimler Truck AG is bringing together all Group-wide fuel cell activities in the recently-established subsidiary Daimler Truck Fuel Cell GmbH & Co. KG in order to facilitate the joint venture with the Volvo Group. Daimler has been investing heavily in new state-of-the-art facilities covering every single process stage of fuel cell production: from membrane coating and stack manufacturing to the production of fuel cell units.

According to Daimler, conventional industrial production processes cannot be directly transferred to the highly complex and highly sensitive fuel cell stacks as even the smallest contamination could impair the functionality of the fuel cells. Optimising the ambient air in production is also especially important, since even slight fluctuations in temperature and humidity can lead to significant material changes. However, the biggest challenge for the Daimler experts is to achieve short production cycles, which is essential for cost-effective production. For this reason, over the last decade or so, Stuttgart-based experts at Daimler AG has been closely working with its colleagues in Vancouver, Canada, in building technical know-how in fuel cell systems and related production methodologies & processes.

On the other hand, Toyota Motor Corporation and Hino Motors Ltd also announced its decision to jointly develop a heavy-duty fuel cell truck earlier this year in March 2020. The joint development project is based on Hino Profia and will be leveraging technologies from both Toyota and Hino that the Japanese giants have cultivated over the years. Various steps are being initiated through comprehensive weight reduction to ensure a sufficient load capacity; thus, the vehicle chassis is specially designed with optimum packaging for a fuel cell vehicle. The powertrain is equipped with two Toyota fuel cell stacks that have been newly developed for Toyota’s next Mirai and includes vehicle driving control that applies heavy-duty hybrid vehicle technologies, developed by Hino. The cruising range will also be set at approximately 600 km, aiming to meet high standards in both environmental performance and practicality as a commercial vehicle.

Toyota has also announced its collaboration with five Chinese companies - China FAW Corporation Limited, Dongfeng Motor Corporation, Guangzhou Automobile Group Co. Ltd, Beijing Automotive Group Co., Ltd and Beijing SinoHytec Co., Ltd. – that will jointly establish the United Fuel Cell System R&D (Beijing) Co. Ltd. (FCRD). These six companies will specifically formulate product plans to develop a series of technologies from components, including fuel cell stacks that satisfy performance needs in China as well as fuel cell system controls that support such components for vehicle installation.

Hyundai Motor also recently organised its H2 Mobility + Energy show that offered a sneak peek into its comprehensive portfolio that harnesses the hydrogen energy potential, thereby leading the paradigm shift to eco-friendly commercial vehicles in the industry. In 2019, Hyundai Motor Company formed Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility (HHM), a joint venture with Swiss company H2 Energy, which will lease the trucks to commercial truck operators on a pay-per-use basis, meaning there is no initial investment for commercial fleet customers.

Hyundai HDC-6 NEPTUNE, a hydrogen -powered fuel cell electric truck that was showcased at the North American Commercial Vehicle Show in October 2019, also premiered during H2 Mobility + Energy show. The HDC-6 NEPTUNE has been designed with a solid structure possessing a rounded, smooth front design with an aim to create an entirely unique frame for the hydrogen-powered electric truck. Hyundai plans to introduce the HDC-6 NEPTUNE into the market within the next three to four years while developing an enhanced fuel cell system with high durability and power, optimised for heavy-duty trucks.

The Korean auto major has also been collaborating with industry stakeholders to vitalise the global hydrogen economy by supplying fuel cell vehicles, building more hydrogen charging stations, and expanding the application of fuel cell systems into various industries. Hyundai has already partnered with the global engine manufacturing giant Cummins in September last year to provide hydrogen fuel cell systems for the North American commercial vehicle market. Hyundai is currently engaged in discussion with major companies in the US and Europe regarding hydrogen fuel cell applications.

In May this year, the European Union revealed a € 750 bn recovery plan, which is centred on the European Green Deal to fund green transport and industries. The plan highlights hydrogen as a technology priority through investments as well as free cross-border trade. A European Clean Hydrogen Alliance that brings together investors with governmental, institutional and industrial partners was also announced earlier this year. Undoubtedly, such developments speak well for the future of hydrogen in trucking; however, there are still many hurdles that need to be addressed before hydrogen makes an economic contribution.

Anirudh Raheja
Author: Anirudh Raheja
A technology lover by passion, and an automobile journalist by profession. Anirudh has been networking extensively with key industry stakeholders to understand the diversity of automotive industry and keeps himself abreast with the industry developments. He is always keen to learn new things and skills that keep him 'Committed, Resourceful and Motivated'. He tweets @itsme_anirudh