Fuel cell could wipe out diesel in trucks

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UOL subscribers can still receive 10 exclusive newsletters. ******** Trucks powered by hydrogen cells are already a reality in many projects by large manufacturers.

Volvo started running trucks equipped with this technology in June, the same month that Daimler also began testing its second prototype of the type. But these are not the only companies interested in the technology, given the superiority of using cells over conventional batteries. UOL Cars sought out a hydrogen specialist to clear up some doubts.

The main one was the reason why some manufacturers prefer to opt for hydrogen in commercial vehicles even before making it viable in cars - excluding brands that build only heavy vehicles. "It's not a question of greater margin to add weight than in a pickup, for example. After 20 years of development, automakers have come to the conclusion that the larger the vehicle, the greater the advantage for vehicles powered by fuel cell in: autonomy (same as a conventional vehicle), refueling time (from 3 to 5 minutes) and cost", explains Monica Saraiva Panik, Hydrogen mentor at SAE Brasil.

In the case of commercials, the old maxim that "time is money" is more valid than ever.

How the fuel cell works

Hyundai Hydrogen fuel cell - Disclosure - Disclosure

Hyundai fuel cell Image: Disclosure

Here's a brief explanation of how the system works: the incoming hydrogen is stored under pressure in a tank and passes to a fuel cell. It mixes with oxygen before passing through a catalyst and thereby generating an electric current, in addition to emitting only pure water into the exhaust.

No more passing by a diesel truck and breathing in that "smoke". All the energy is stored in batteries and passed on to an electric motor. Not everyone is in the prototype stage.

Hyundai is one of those that have already put models of the type on sale. Launched in 2020, the XCIENT Fuel Cell has already been more than tested. The first commercially launched hydrogen truck began testing with 47 units in Switzerland.

According to the manufacturer, the models have already driven more than four million kilometers by July this year. Although supply requires its own facilities, the network is growing. It may not be at the pace of electric charging stations, but the advantage of cell refueling time is unquestionable, which is not much different with a diesel truck.

The range is over 400 km and the total gross weight is over 40 tonnes. The advantages over heavy electric vehicles are many. "A fuel cell vehicle generates its own energy from hydrogen. It makes no sense to equip vehicles with a power above 200 kW only with batteries, because they need to be supplied with external electricity, overloading the grid, and a greater amount of batteries would make these vehicles super heavy, in addition to the battery using more precious metals than a fuel cell system", emphasizes Monica.

"Battery technology also has other advantages, such as the reduction of components compared to hydrogen technologies, but it needs special alloys and high extraction costs. Hydrogen, on the other hand, needs a distribution system close to highways", he counters Gerhard Ett, professor in the Chemical Engineering department at FEI and coordinator of Formula FEI H2.. The development is being marked by several partnerships. "Several automakers are working on this application.

Many joint ventures, both for trucks and for bus production. For example, the German company Daimler Truck has partnered with the Swedish Volvo Group, creating the joint venture Cellcentric Hydrogen Fuel Cells; the German auto parts company Mahle and the Canadian Ballard Power System, a traditional fuel cell company, signed an agreement for the joint development of fuel cell systems; another Canadian company, Hydrogenics, was acquired by the American Cummins, an engine company, and by the French Air Liquid, a gas company. The other Swedish giant, Scania, has also worked in partnership with the American Cummins, exporting to Norway.

In Brazil, we have great examples, such as Marcopolo - it is in the process of homologating the Audace fuel cell model in China", says Gerhard. If today it is still known as a manufacturer of diesel engines, Cummins is one of the most committed to partnerships. With more than 20% of its shares in the hands of Cummins, Loop Energy is a Canadian company that believes that the efficiency of hydrogen heavy trucks is already the same as a diesel-powered one.

According to an interview published by the Reuters news agency, "this product delivers the savings needed for adoption today," says Ben Nyland, chief executive of Loop Energy. The company made a calculation based on the price of diesel on the European continent. According to the study, diesel costs about US£1.91 per liter and, in turn, hydrogen costs US£10 per kg.

Despite the apparent disadvantage, these kilos yield much more than liters of diesel. The research says that a truck equipped with the brand's new cell system can run 177 km on 100 dollars of hydrogen, against 174 for its diesel-powered pair. When it comes to weight, it has quite an advantage in the use of cells, and that's both compared to electric and diesel rivals. "Comparing a lithium-ion battery bank of a 600 kWh Heavy Duty (truck), to run 1,360 km it would have a weight of 3,800 kilos.

Replaced by hydrogen and fuel cells, with a 350 kWh electric motor it consumes approximately 7.5 kg per 100 km and requires 102 kg for 1,360 km of autonomy. If a normal truck does an average of 2.62 km/l (running at 100 km/h) for the same 1,360 kg mentioned above, it will need a tank of approximately 520 liters of diesel, that is, five times heavier than the hydrogen", calculates Gerhard. Excitement about the use of fuel cells is huge in all areas of vehicles, but it seems to be rapidly gaining traction among the heavyweights.

While the Toyota Mirai is already in its second generation and has had a higher market growth rate than the electric ones, the time for trucks and buses has come. According to Monica, California and Europe alone aim to have 100,000 hydrogen trucks by 2030. As with the Mirai, the technology will be rolled out to markets little by little.

Daimler intends to start testing its truck with customers from next year, but series production is scheduled for 2027. The fleet's objective is to have a carbon neutral operation (tank to wheel) in Europe, Japan and North America in 2039. Want to read more about the automotive world and talk to us about it?

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