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Supply Chain News: Will Hydrogen Fuel Cell Trucks be the Answer in the End


Maybe Yes, Maybe No, as Toyota Expands Pilot at Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach

Oct. 16, 2017
SCDigest Editorial Staff

What is going to be the alternative fuel truck of the future?

A few years ago, it looked like the short term answer would be natural gas powered trucks, given lower operating costs and reduced CO2 emissions, if nothing else as a bridge technology to a more true clean energy answer down the road (pun intended).

Supply Chain Digest Says...

While hydrogen powered trucks do not produce any local CO2 or other harmful emissions, the hydrogen its self if actually based on a fossil fuel.

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Natural gas trucks are still a force to be sure, and dominate some categories such as trash collection, but the cost equation hasn't been as favorable as first thought, given consistently low diesel fuel costs in recent years, high costs for acquiring new nat gas powered tractors, and concerns from some carriers that any fuel savings achieved will simply be given away through reduced fuel surcharge payments by shippers.

The move towards an electric car future seems of late to be accelerating, with a number of countries making plans to eliminate gasoline or diesel powered cars over the next couple of decades. But can that momentum translate into electric trucks as well?

Elon Must and Telsa now say they will at last unveil the promised concept electric truck on October 26, though no one outside the company seems to have any real idea of what level of detail that release will include.

Regardless, some experts have suggested that electric freight trucks have limited application, due to the short range such vehicles will surely have for many years, until some true breakthrough in battery technology arrives. Conversely, a class 8 truck today can hold as much as 300 gallons of diesel fuel and travel 1,400 miles before refueling.

Still, an electric truck with even a 200 mile range on a fresh battery charge might be OK for port drayage operations, local deliveries, maybe even some LTL routes.

But somewhat quietly emerging is another alternative: trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cell technology.

In fact, there was news this week that Toyota Motor North America has been currently conducting a pilot running a concept version of its hydrogen-powered truck design, a test which will soon be expanded to routes that run around 200 miles per day, moving goods in drayage fashion between depots in the ports of LA and Long Beach.

Toyota's truck produces zero CO2 emissions during operation, has 670 horsepower and an 80,000-pound total weight capacity. The powertrain includes two of Toyota's Mirai fuel cells, and a 12kWh battery charged by the fuel cells.


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Toyota says the test will enable it to better understand the impact of frequent cycling of the fuel cell system. Over time, Toyota says it also plans to conduct longer runs of the truck, as part of an overall feasibility test.

However, this version of the Toyota truck will also have only about a 200 mile range between fills, though those fills will be much faster than recharging a large battery.

Another major player in the hydrogen fuel cell market is a company called Nikola Motor Co., which actually started out planning to build electric trucks, but switched to hydrogen fuel cell technology due to what it perceived as too many limitations with true electrics. Other truck makers, such as Daimler and more, are also very active in hydrogen powered truck development. In fact, Daimler has a good number of city buses running on electricity derived from hydrogen fuel celsl in Burnaby, British Columbia.

The technology indeed looks very promising - but as with other alternative fuel trucks, there are still many questions.

The big one is that while hydrogen powered trucks do not produce any local CO2 or other harmful emissions, the hydrogen itself if actually based on a fossil fuel. The most common way to make hydrogen is through a process called "steam reformation" of methane, which is derived from natural gas. Since natural gas is a fossil fuel, there are unwanted emissions resulting from the production process.

However, Nikola says it might have an answer to that obstacle, with designs to erect a 100-megawatt solar farm to produce electricity for conversion of water to nydrogen through electrolysis. Whether that will turn out to be cost effective is still a big unknown.

So which if any of these technologies will win in the end? It seems most likely that all of them will get tests in the market - as UPS has been doing for years with its fleet - to see which solution works best for which application.

What are your thoughts on hydrogen fuel trucks? Will it be the winning technology in the end - or not? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.


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