Hydrogen fuel cell trucks could be the vehicles of the future. Auto manufacturers have been exploring alternative fuels for decades, and they might have reached a breakthrough.
While electric cars are still viable replacements for gas-powered vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells have several advantages.
Here’s everything you need to know about the progress, predictions and upcoming challenges of hydrogen fuel cell trucks.
What Makes Hydrogen so Eco-Friendly?
First of all, why hydrogen? What makes this particular element such an eco-friendly fuel? For starters, hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. It’s not technically a “renewable” resource, but it exists in such abundance that humans can comfortably use it for millions of years.
Hydrogen also has the highest energy density of any fuel. It has nearly three times the energy content of gasoline, which means it’s three times more efficient by default. Not only that, but hydrogen doesn’t produce any carbon emissions or particulate matter. Instead of emitting exhaust fumes, it emits harmless water vapor.
Hydrogen also addresses the deficiencies of electric vehicles. For all of their redeeming qualities, EVs still struggle with consistent battery range. They’re not ideal for long-distance travel, which means they’ve struggled in many commercial applications. Hydrogen can step in where EVs have proven ineffective, such as manufacturing and shipping.
The concept of hydrogen fuel cell trucks has been around since the 1970s, but manufacturers have only made real progress in the last decade or so. Here are some of the latest newsworthy developments in fuel cell technology.
Take a look at this video by Reactions to learn how a hydrogen fuel cell works:
Who is Making Hydrogen Fuel Cell Trucks?
Many big names in the automotive industry have plans for hydrogen fuel cell trucks. The most lucrative project thus far has been a collaboration between Volvo and Daimler Trucks in Europe. They have started a joint venture called Cellcentric and are already one of Europe’s biggest fuel cell producers.
According to the Swedish automaker, its hydrogen trucks can travel up to 600 miles on a single charge. Their two fuel cells generate an estimated 300 kilowatts and take about 15 minutes to recharge. The total weight of the trucks has reached 65 tons, but the added poundage has not impacted performance.
Other big names like Toyota, Hyundai and BMW have also completed their first hydrogen fuel cell truck prototypes. Toyota has partnered with fuel cell producer Kenworth and wants to roll out its new trucks in 2024. There are also plans to begin full-scale production of a Class 8 T680 FCEV, which boasts up to 450 miles of range under the right driving conditions.
Hyundai’s XCIENT fuel cell semi-truck is already available in South Korea, New Zealand, Israel, Germany and Switzerland. The XCIENT has a range of about 250 miles — not as long as Volvo or Toyota, but still longer than most EVs. Hyundai wants to bring its new truck to the North American market in 2024.
Aside from commercial trucks, BMW has introduced an entire fleet of iX5 hydrogen SUVs, which have reached a 310-mile range during testing. The fuel cells don’t interfere with the vehicle’s speed or handling at all. You still get the experience of driving a high-end European sports car without the carbon emissions or exhaust fumes.
Honda has also been exploring hydrogen-powered sedans and SUVs since 2021. Its first model was a hybrid called the Clarity Fuel Cell, which had a 340-mile combined gas and electric driving range. The upcoming 2024 CR-V will also be a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (HFEV), bringing the two sustainable technologies together.
Thanks to the efforts of Hyundai, Honda and other automakers, South Korea has the world’s largest market of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. 15,000 cars and counting are on the road as of 2022. The United States, China, Japan and Germany round out the top five, but they have mostly deployed buses and trucks.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Truck Development: The Next Steps
Now that the first hydrogen fuel cell truck prototypes are finished, what are the next steps? Although the trucks you just read about appear to perform at a high level, they’re not quite ready to take over the world.
Several big challenges stand in the way of widespread adoption:
First of all, many of these vehicles are still in their testing phases. Testing can take over a year for a regular vehicle, and it takes even longer with groundbreaking technology like fuel cells. Testing hydrogen fuel cell trucks is so time consuming for two big reasons — accurate range estimations and lack of fuel cell infrastructure.
For example, Volvo has been testing its fuel cell trucks since 2022. In order to confirm their 600-mile range, inspectors have to drive the trucks for thousands of miles on varying terrains. Additionally, the company has to use its own charging stations. Europe doesn’t have the infrastructure to support fuel cell vehicles, so everything comes from in-house.
It’s also crucial for hydrogen fuel cell trucks to undergo testing in harsh and demanding conditions. They’re commercial vehicles that will be carrying heavy loads. Once they’re on the job, the trucks will be expected to take long journeys in any type of weather. Testing needs to cover the truck’s handling in every unique environment, which takes a lot of time.
Increasing Hydrogen Availability
Hydrogen availability is the next challenge that must be addressed. The world currently doesn’t have sufficient access to hydrogen to power thousands of fuel cell vehicles.
In fact, most of today’s hydrogen isn’t as clean as it could be. An estimated 96% of all hydrogen production comes from methane, while the rest comes from water electrolysis.
Water electrolysis is the key to producing large amounts of clean hydrogen. The Biden Administration also wants to establish seven “clean hydrogen hubs” in seven key regions:
- California: California’s existing clean energy technologies can help with hydrogen production through biomass and other renewable energy sources.
- Pacific Northwest: This region’s abundance of renewable resources and high precipitation levels can sustain clean hydrogen production exclusively through electrolysis.
- Heartland: Decarbonizing the agricultural sector in this region will decrease the costs of clean hydrogen production, particularly for electric generation and cold climate space heating.
- Midwest: This region’s combination of renewable energy, natural gas, and low-cost nuclear energy can lead to massive increases in hydrogen production.
- Gulf Coast: Centered around Houston – the energy capital of the United States — this region plans to leverage its abundant natural gas supply to drive down the costs of hydrogen production.
- Appalachia: The low-cost natural gas in this region will also reduce hydrogen production costs, and its strategic location is perfect for hydrogen pipelines, fueling stations, and permanent storage of carbon emissions.
- Mid-Atlantic: This region will be home to hydrogen production facilities that use both renewable and nuclear energy. It will be crucial in providing hydrogen access to New York City, Philadelphia, the DMV and other densely populated areas on the east coast.
In total, the government intends to spend $7 billion in the coming years to finance these projects. The goal is to make low-cost hydrogen commercially viable and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of transportation, agriculture and other polluting industries.
The U.S. only had 165 hydrogen fueling stations in 2022, but that number is projected to reach 4,300 by 2030. This project aligns with the “seven hydrogen hub” plan and the Biden Administration’s goal to produce 10 million metric tons of clean energy every year.
The Path for Hydrogen Trucks is Clear
Hydrogen fuel cell trucks aren’t right around the corner — they’re already here. Volvo, Toyota, BMW and many other global automakers have created their first vehicles with this innovative technology.
Some challenges still lie ahead, but the path for hydrogen trucks is clear. Getting through the testing phase and expanding hydrogen access are the next steps toward global expansion.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will hydrogen fuel cell trucks replace electric vehicles?
No, hydrogen fuel cell trucks won’t replace EVs. As evidenced by vehicles like Toyota’s T680 HFEV, the two technologies can peacefully coexist within the same vehicle. Read the full guide to learn more about hydrogen fuel cell trucks.
What are the next steps in hydrogen fuel cell development?
Now that the first successful models have been created, the next step is to put them through a rigorous testing phase. As the automakers test their vehicles, federal governments must work to increase their hydrogen production and build more fueling stations. Read the full guide to learn more about development of hydrogen fuel cells.
When will hydrogen fuel cell trucks be publicly available?
Countries like South Korea, the United States and China already have commercial buses and trucks on public roads, but hydrogen fuel cell vehicles won’t become available to the average consumer until at least mid-2024. Read the full guide to learn more about hydrogen fuel cell trucks.
How efficient are hydrogen fuel cells?
Hydrogen fuel cells are nearly three times more efficient than gasoline engines. They also have a much higher energy density, which means the cells can store larger amounts of fuel. That’s why hydrogen fuel cell trucks have such a long range. Read the full guide to learn more about hydrogen fuel cell trucks.
References & Useful Resources
AngloAmerican: How Hydrogen Fuel Cells Work to Power The Future
Smithsonian: Fuel Cell Technology Basics