Hydrogen Fuel Logistics: Storage, Transportation, and Distribution
As sustainable alternatives to conventional energy become increasingly necessary, consumer opinion sways in favor of hydrogen-based solutions. In a recent Bosch study, 41% of participants saw hydrogen as the biggest driver for sustainability, tied for first with climate engineering.
This is in part because the chemical properties of hydrogen—mainly energy capacity relative to mass—make it a uniquely apt natural resource. However, the flip side of that property is low density, which creates logistical difficulties in storing, transporting, and distributing hydrogen fuel cells. Understanding these processes is vital to meeting such challenges.
Below, we’ll look at hydrogen fuel cell logistics, potential obstacles, and solutions.
Hydrogen Fuel Storage Methods
The first element of hydrogen fuel logistics is storage before transportation and distribution. Per the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), hydrogen is stored in two ways:
- Physical-based storage – Hydrogen can be stored in a gaseous or liquid state. As a gas, it requires compression and constant pressure of ~5,000 to 10,000 psi. As a liquid, it goes through liquefaction and is stored at constant cryogenic temperatures below -252.8°C.
- Material-based storage – Hydrogen can also be stored in combination with other solid materials through absorption (stored within) or adsorption (stored on). Common examples include liquid organics, interstitial hydrides, and complex hydrides.
Because of the inherent difficulty and costs required to maintain sufficient storage capacity with the specific conditions mentioned above for physical storage, research into new material-based solutions is ongoing. The Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office (HFTO) hosts the hydrogen storage materials database, with updates and information on new materials to consider.
Transportation of Hydrogen
In terms of transportation, hydrogen fuel is transported in a gaseous or liquid state. As a gas, it can be transported by vehicle or in pipelines, like natural gas and other similar resources. About 1,600 miles of pipelines dedicated to hydrogen fuel transportation are active across the US.
Gaseous hydrogen transportation by vehicle typically happens by truck. Trailers are loaded with cylinders that maintain constant pressures of at least 180 bar (~2,600 psi) and no more than 250 bar, per Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations. Typically, cylinders can carry 560 to 900 kg of hydrogen each, and “tube trailer” trucks will carry multiple cylinders at a time.
Liquid hydrogen transportation requires “tanker” trucks that carry super-cooled containers maintained at about -253°C. A significant amount of energy is consumed in liquefaction, but this method is more efficient over long distances and at scale than its gaseous counterpart.
Distribution of Hydrogen Fuel
Once hydrogen has been carted from the point of production to the point of use, there is on-site storage to account for. As with transport, methods differ for gas and liquid hydrogen.
Liquid storage tanks (“dewars”) are the most common method for on-site storage. The same temperature requirements apply to transport, along with assurances for a low-pressure (~5 bar or 73 psi) environment to prevent excess “boil off.” Gaseous storage requires high-pressure cylinders similar to those used for transport; these may be all metal (Type I) or combinations of load-bearing metal (Type II) and non-load-bearing metal (Types III and IV) with other materials.
However, another distribution logistics issue is the fuel's ultimate destination and use case. The onboard storage conditions of the target vehicles may differ drastically. EERE notes that many commercial vehicles utilize 700 bar onboard storage, whereas buses and similar vehicles often use 350 bar. Hydrogen dispensation infrastructure needs to be considered.
Challenges in Hydrogen Fuel Logistics
Some of the biggest challenges in storing, transporting, and distributing hydrogen fuel stem from its basic chemical properties. Namely, three of the most significant difficulties to navigate are the following:
- Cost factors – Although hydrogen offers the most energy by mass of any fuel source, per the EERE, it exists at relatively low densities at ambient temperatures. It requires some combination of large unit volumes and/or capacities for higher energy density at scale.
- Infrastructure requirements – Hydrogen fuel logistics necessitate apt roads, waterways, and pipeline infrastructure beyond the capacities needed for transport vessels and on-site storage. This creates burdens for (and may require buy-in from) municipalities.
- Safety concerns – Hydrogen fuel poses threats of fire and explosions. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) publishes several standards for job sites where hydrogen fuel cells are produced and used, all of which need to be followed precisely.
Aside from these broad issues, there are also challenges unique to the industrial context.
For example, when FASTECH partnered with the Orange County Transportation Agency (OCTA) to create the largest hydrogen transit fueling station in the nation in 2020, novelty emerged as a concern. Various stakeholders and the public at large needed guidance on efficient integration.
Sustainable Solutions to Logistical Challenges
Most often, solutions to logistical challenges are niche-specific. In our project with OCTA, it became apparent that funding, collaboration, and stakeholder engagement were the keys to successful implementation. California Climate Investments was a major contributor, as were the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the Center for Transportation and Environment (CTE).
These pillars are critical to successful and sustainable hydrogen fuel projects across all sectors. Securing funding from governmental and private sources helps mitigate potentially high start-up and maintenance costs. Working closely with regulatory agencies ensures all safety requirements are met for staff, contractors, collaborators, and stakeholders.
Most importantly, communicating with all parties impacted by a hydrogen fuel implementation is the best way to ensure the infrastructure—material, human, and otherwise—is accounted for.
Another primary consideration is working with a quality end-to-end energy solutions provider.
Making Room for the Fuel of the Future
As ongoing research uncovers efficiencies in processes like liquefaction and storage, Hydrogen’s potential for sustainable clean energy infrastructure will only continue to increase. However, the challenges of storage, transportation, and hydrogen distribution detailed above need to be taken seriously by engineers, owners, and managers looking to integrate hydrogen fuel.
FASTECH is a leading provider of hydrogen and other energy solutions. We’re committed to establishing the foundation for a hydrogen-powered future, including streamlining logistics.