Advantages and Challenges of Hydrogen Fuel in Heavy-Duty Mobility

Renewable Energy /
Advantages and Challenges of Hydrogen Fuel in Heavy-Duty Mobility

Hydrogen fuel, a promising clean energy source that emits only heat and water upon combustion, is increasingly garnering attention in the heavy-duty mobility sector.

As global demand for more sustainable fuel sources magnifies, the use of hydrogen fuel in heavy-duty vehicles—such as trucks, buses, planes, ships, and trains—has helped pave a viable pathway in which reaching net-zero isn’t just a pipedream.

But what are the specific advantages and challenges of hydrogen fuel cells in heavy-duty mobility? Here’s the latest news and applications for this exciting green technology.

Table of Contents

What Is Hydrogen Fuel?

As the universe's lightest and most abundant element, hydrogen carries significant latent potential as a long-term, environmentally friendly fuel source. And today, it’s made all the more attractive because it can now be produced using clean energy methods to split water molecules.

When used in fuel cells, hydrogen fuel reacts with oxygen to create electricity, with heat and water as its only emissions byproducts. As such, it’s considered to be a clean fuel source.

Naturally, an eco-friendly fuel is particularly promising for the heavy-transport sector, which accounts for approximately 27% of US GHG emissions. According to the New Scientist, “96 percent of hydrogen today is made directly from fossil fuels – mostly natural gas, followed by coal and then oil. This overwhelmingly uses a process known as steam reformation that releases carbon dioxide.”

Even so, as awareness about the potential of hydrogen fuel increases, new extraction methods are being developed, creating green and blue hydrogen. Unlike conventional hydrogen extraction processes, these novel production methods rely on renewable energy sources, leading to an entirely emissions-free process.

Advantages of Hydrogen Fuel in Heavy-Duty Mobility

What are the advantages of hydrogen fuel in heavy-duty mobility and transport? While there are many notable benefits, some of the primary focuses include:

Environmental Benefits of Hydrogen Fuel

The primary driver behind the adoption and acceleration of hydrogen fuel in heavy-duty mobility is its potential as an eco-friendly substitute for fossil fuels.

Meeting ambitious net-zero targets remains a significant challenge, if not an impossibility, without a viable alternative to power the engines that drive modern commerce and civilization. Current solar and wind technologies are not yet advanced enough to fully replace fossil fuels, particularly for powering heavy-duty mobility vehicles.

Hydrogen fuel presents a promising solution to this dilemma, as it can generate the power necessary to move multi-ton vehicles without emitting harmful greenhouse gasses (GHGs).

Improved Performance and Reliability

Hydrogen power may be the key to reducing a vehicle fleet’s operational costs. Compared to battery-powered or internal combustion engine counterparts, hydrogen-powered vehicles offer comparable if not superior performance and reliability in a number of ways:

  • Fuel cells can reduce costs associated with changing, charging, and managing batteries, which results in reduced labor, time, space, and peak power demands.
  • Units run longer than lead-acid batteries.
  • Units fuel up much faster than a battery charge, reducing downtime.
  • Hydrogen fuel cell technology is extraordinarily resilient against harsh conditions, capable of remaining operational in sub-zero weather.

Finally, hydrogen fuel is not subject to fluctuating oil prices, making an operation’s energy prices more predictable.

Opportunities for Fuel Diversification and Energy Security

The Ukraine war has underscored the grave global energy security risks associated with countries depending on foreign nations—particularly despotic ones—for oil imports. As the EU endeavors to extricate itself from Russian oil, it still represents 25% of all gas imports, contributing to soaring prices despite the ongoing attempts to impose an embargo on Russia.

Using hydrogen as a fuel source allows countries to diversify their energy portfolio and reduce dependence on imported oil. It can be produced domestically from various sources, including:

  • Natural gas
  • Biomass
  • Renewable energy

The natural result of fuel diversification is increased energy security and independence, coupled with greater resilience against geopolitical disruptions in oil supply.

Low Noise Pollution

From a user and community perspective, hydrogen-powered vehicles produce significantly less noise pollution than conventional combustion engine vehicles. This creates a quieter, more pleasant experience for city residents.

Challenges of Hydrogen Fuel in Heavy-Duty Mobility

While hydrogen fuel is an incredibly promising future technology, some issues stymie its development and adoption, including:

Production Challenges

Conventional means of generating hydrogen fuel are energy-intensive and tend to rely on fossil fuels; even so, the emergence of green hydrogen could negate this issue entirely.

Distribution Challenges

Likewise, distributing hydrogen will require extensive infrastructure and networks, as well as specialized transportation.

Limited Infrastructure and Lack of Refueling Stations

Currently, hydrogen fuel infrastructure is insufficient for widespread adoption. However, with each passing year, these networks are growing rapidly.

High Cost of Production and Storage

As mentioned, conventional hydrogen fuel production has latent cost, energy, and storage issues.

Safety Concerns and Public Perception

The general public can be hesitant to embrace new technologies, particularly when it comes to an element as combustible as hydrogen.

Many people may not realize that when handled properly, hydrogen is safer than most commonly used fuels.

Addressing misconceptions and providing education will be essential to gaining public acceptance. When given this information, the public tends to favor hydrogen.

Competition With Other Alternative Fuel Sources

Compared to more mature alternative fuels such as electric and biofuels, hydrogen lacks the infrastructure and public acceptance.

OCTA and FASTECH Case Study

The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) collaborated with FASTECH to establish a hydrogen fuel station for the municipality's buses. In January 2020, they unveiled the nation's largest transit-operated hydrogen fueling station in Santa Ana, California.

OCTA also committed to a cleaner and greener transportation technology. To support this goal, they purchased ten plug-in battery electric buses, which entered operation in 2021. These hydrogen-fueled buses were strategically integrated into the OC Bus fleet to serve communities with disadvantaged populations, aligning with California's Innovative Clean Transit Rule.

Two major challenges for this project were funding and the novelty of the project.

For funding, OCTA obtained more than half of the project budget ($12.5 million) from California Climate Investments, a statewide initiative allocating cap-and-trade dollars for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy, and improving public health and the environment. They also secured grants from CARB, SB1 State of Good Repair funds, and the South Coast AQMD Clean Fuels Fund.

For guidance, OCTA trusted FASTECH’s expertise while also consulting with various stakeholders like the California Air Resources Board (CARB), South Coast Air Quality Management District, and Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE).

Takeaway: The OCTA case study shows that successful implementation of hydrogen fuel technology in heavy-duty mobility requires collaboration, funding, and stakeholder engagement. With the proper support and expertise, it’s possible to pave the way for a carbon-free future.

Hydrogen Fuel: The Future of Heavy-Duty Transport

If the world ever hopes to make a significant dent in carbon emissions output—and do so without shackling its economy with unsatisfactory technologies—hydrogen fuel is the solution the heavy-duty transport industry has been begging for. It would enable the industry to reduce its carbon footprint without sacrificing the performance and range required to operate as usual.

Here at FASTECH, we represent the vanguard of the hydrogen future. As the country’s leading provider of end-to-end hydrogen solutions, we’re establishing the foundation necessary to move away from conventional fuels.

Whether you need assistance with testing and compliance, construction, maintenance, or consulting, join us to usher in a greener tomorrow.

Reach out today to discover more about hydrogen fuel in heavy-duty transport.

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