NACFE: Hydrogen part of the zero-emissions solution

Updated Apr 6, 2023
A blue Volvo hydrogen fuel cell truck
Volvo has announced a hydrogen fuel cell Class 8 truck.

The North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) says its research is clear, the future of long-haul will include hydrogen. But not only hydrogen.

“It’s not the solution for every duty cycle, but it is a solution for part of the work that diesel engines are doing today,” says Rick Mihelic, one of the authors of NACFE’s newest guidance report, “Hydrogen Trucks: Long Haul’s Future?”

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NACFE sees hydrogen trucks working in concert with other forms of fuel including, yes, diesel, as well as other alternative fuels.

“We don’t need to know everything to get started,” says Mike Roeth, NACFE’s executive director, with some gray areas including distribution systems and tractor cost, for starters.

The industry does need to agree on the form of hydrogen to base the technology on — gaseous or liquid. NACFE’s report details some of the pros and cons of each.

When it comes to hydrogen, the trucking industry is really just getting started.

“There just seems to be a lot of unknowns,” Roeth says. Following the form of the fuel and transportation of that form, there’s also what will drive the development of hydrogen fuels.

What’s clear, Mihelic says, is that trucking can’t do it alone.

“There isn’t enough demand out of the vehicles to push the volume sufficiently,” he says. Instead, the industry needs to work with other constituencies that also use large, traditionally diesel- or natural gas-powered engines, such as steel manufacturing and cement manufacturing.

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Another question mark is the cost of the hydrogen-fueled tractors.

“We’re too early in the product development,” to guess at price tags, Roeth says, either of manufacture or to consumers. The report cites Schneider’s Rob Reich as saying his company will test a hydrogen truck this year.

Mihelic, citing his years in the industry, says he’s confident once a general design is hammered out technology costs will come down considerably.

“We’re very good at reducing costs once we have an initial design built,” he says. “My faith is in the industry getting the cost down once we get a design built.”

[RELATED: Volvo debuts hydrogen fuel cell zero-emission truck]

NACFE also considered the hydrogen internal combustion engine. Cummins calls it “less of a leap” than hydrogen fuel cells, and Roeth says the hydrogen engine might be a stepping stone for several fleets on the road map to zero emissions.

Kevin Otto, NACFE’s electrification technical lead and an author of the report, says the hydrogen engine isn’t as efficient as a hydrogen fuel cell, but the vehicle may be easier for some operators and owners to handle because the same powertrain and component arrangements can be used for the hydrogen truck as for the familiar diesel truck.

What it may come down to, Roeth adds, is how much change an organization is willing to tolerate.

“How much of that can you handle?” he asks.

The report also looks beyond long-haul trucking into shorter hauls that are done several times per day. “We’re not ruling out hydrogen on short routes if there’s high utilization of the truck,” Roeth says. There’s also the problem of very rural areas where it might be easier to get hydrogen than electricity to recharge a battery electric vehicle and cold areas where hydrogen could potentially perform better.

Mihelic cautions not to pull the two technologies too far apart.

“Hydrogen can’t be divorced from electricity,” Mihelic says. Instead, he says, look at it like a hydrogen fuel cell truck is really a range-extended battery electric vehicle.

Read the full report here.

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