Hydrogen in the transport transition: Where can green hydrogen be used sensibly and what are the current obstacles and opportunities.
From Andreas Huke
According to Climate Watch, transport and logistics account for a large share of global CO2 emissions at 16.2%. That’s why the focus is now shifting to green logistics, which uses environmentally friendly technologies to reduce the industry’s emissions. Green hydrogen will play a major role in this. An overview of barriers, opportunities, and the current state.
Freight traffic in Germany
The main task of the logistics industry is the transport, handling and storage of goods. In Germany, it is the largest economic sector after the automotive industry and trade. Service providers in the field of logistics include:
- Transport company
- Forwarding agencies
- Parcel delivery services
- Delivery services
- Courier services
- the railroad
- the airline industry
- the shipping traffic
Heavy trucks are the biggest polluters
In Germany, over 80 percent of all goods are transported by road, with only a small proportion being transported by rail and inland waterways. For the logistics industry, road remains the most flexible way to transport goods – and the trend is rising. But heavy trucks in particular contribute a large share to CO2 emissions in traffic. Total road freight transport in Germany generates around 50 megatons of CO2 per year. Half of this is generated by the approximately 250,000 heavy trucks weighing over 26 tons. That’s why the industry is coming under more and more pressure to become more climate-friendly. Since 2019, the toll for trucks in Germany has also depended in part on a vehicle’s noise potential and pollutant class. In addition, the fee now also applies to federal and state highways. In addition, a surcharge based on CO2 emissions is currently under discussion. If Federal Transport Minister Scheuer has his way, this surcharge could be levied as early as 2023. Many cities now have entry bans and environmental zones to reduce noise and nitrogen oxides.
Electric drives: Well suited for smaller trucks
This increases the incentive for transport companies to opt for more environmentally friendly commercial vehicles. Manufacturers are also under pressure to develop alternatives to gasoline and diesel. This is because, according to new EU requirements, they must reduce the average emissions of their fleets by 15 percent by 2025 and by 30 percent by 2030. Otherwise, they face heavy fines. The switch to environmentally friendly drives is quickest for smaller vehicles with payloads of up to 2.8 tons. They are mainly used by craft businesses and by courier and parcel services, which mostly travel regionally or within cities. Such vehicles only have to cover manageable ranges and are therefore well suited to electric drives. One example is the German postal service, which uses the Streetscooter electric truck in its delivery service. In the future, Amazon wants to deliver its packages with the electric delivery trucks of the manufacturer Rivian.
Electric drives in heavy-duty transport
Electric drives do not yet play a major role in larger vehicles with payloads of 7.5 tons or more. But it is in the heavy-duty segment of 12 tons and above that the switch to zero-emission drives is particularly urgent, because heavy trucks emit the most CO2. This is where the range of batteries still reaches its limits, and they also reduce the available payload. However, various manufacturers are already working on large trucks with electric drives: Tesla, Nikola Motors, MAN, Volvo or Volta Trucks. They are also counting on further improvements in batteries. However, many manufacturers consider hydrogen trucks to be the better solution for heavy-duty transport, where long distances and short cycles are involved. However, it is important that the hydrogen is “green”, i.e. produced with the help of renewable energies.
Hydrogen truck: fuel cell or hydrogen combustion engine
Green hydrogen is produced through electrolysis by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity. For this hydrogen to be “green” and thus climate-neutral, the electricity must come from (surplus) renewable energies. The hydrogen is carried in a tank in the vehicle and converted back into electricity via a fuel cell, which powers the vehicle. This produces heat and water vapor, but no harmful emissions. One disadvantage of hydrogen is its lower efficiency due to conversion losses. The fast refueling of the trucks and the longer ranges compared to electric drive are arguments in favor of hydrogen. Just like conventional fuel, refueling takes only a few minutes. Especially in the logistics industry, where time is money, this is a decisive advantage. In addition, fuel cells are comparatively durable, with an average of 10,000 operating hours. Fuel cell trucks are more expensive to buy than conventional trucks, and running on hydrogen also costs more than diesel. Both are likely to change as the technology becomes more widespread. If the production capacities for green hydrogen increase and the prices for renewable electricity decrease, green hydrogen will also become significantly cheaper. The Hydrogen Council, which includes more than 90 international companies, expects the cost of many hydrogen applications to be cut in half over the next decade.
The hydrogen combustion engine as an alternative
In addition to fuel cells, hydrogen combustion engines are also an option. In this process, hydrogen is not converted to electricity but used directly as a fuel. This variant would be quicker to implement, as current combustion vehicles would only need to be converted. The Munich-based start-up Keyou is pursuing precisely this approach, converting combustion engines into hydrogen drives. In two years, Keyou already wants to equip the first buses and trucks.
These manufacturers are working on hydrogen trucks
Nikola Motors: The start-up from Arizona wants to turn the truck market around with alternative drives. The first Nikola Two fuel cell truck is scheduled to roll off the assembly line in mid-2023, for which Nikola says it already has 14,000 orders. The manufacturer wants to build its own network of hydrogen filling stations and produce the hydrogen it needs itself.
Daimler/Volvo: Daimler will also be using hydrogen in commercial vehicles in the future. Together with Volvo, the Swabians want to develop and produce fuel cells for heavy trucks. The first Daimler trucks with hydrogen drive are scheduled to be launched in the second half of this decade. In 25 years, virtually all Daimler trucks will run on hydrogen.
Mercedes: Mercedes has presented the design study of the GenH2 truck, a fuel cell truck with a range of 1,000 kilometers. It will be tested directly by customers from 2023 and, like the Daimler trucks, is expected to go into series production in the second half of the decade.
MAN: MAN is focusing on both fuel cells and hydrogen combustion engines. The first prototypes, in which MAN plans to test both variants, are to be ready as early as 2021. MAN assumes a range of 800 kilometers for the fuel cell drive, while the hydrogen combustion engine is intended to serve more as a bridging technology. According to MAN, its advantages are the rapid availability and robustness of the proven combustion engine technologies.
Toyota: Toyota and commercial vehicle manufacturer Hino are developing a 26-ton truck with fuel cells and a range of 600 kilometers. In addition, the first prototypes of another hydrogen model for the U.S. market are scheduled for completion in 2021. They are based on the drive system of the Toyota Mirai fuel cell passenger car.
Hyundai: Hyundai is also launching a hydrogen truck with fuel cell, the Hyundai Xcient. The first vehicles have already been tested in a fleet trial in Switzerland, and Hyundai aims to have 1,600 on the road by 2025. The range of the trucks is 400 kilometers. In addition, Hyundai is working on a fuel cell tractor unit for long-distance transport with a range of 1,000 kilometers.
Hydrogen vehicles in intralogistics
Fuel cell vehicles are also an interesting solution for intralogistics, i.e. for transporting goods within a company’s premises. This applies to airports and shipping ports, factories, warehouses and logistics centers. Industrial trucks such as ants or forklifts are used there today, some with internal combustion engines, some with lead-acid batteries or lithium-ion batteries. Battery-powered industrial trucks have the advantage that they can also be used indoors. The fuel cell brings further advantages: It beats the electric drive by short refueling times compared to charging the batteries, which pays off especially in multi-shift operation. Another advantage is the clean handling. If the fuel cell replaces lead-acid batteries, the vehicles are also suitable for hygiene-critical sectors such as the pharmaceutical or food industries. Valuable storage space is saved because there is no longer any need for holds or rooms for changing batteries.
Industrial trucks with fuel cells in practice
At its Leipzig plant, BMW relies on fuel cell vehicles, among other things, for its tugger trains. They supply the assembly lines with vendor parts. The vehicles are lighter as a result, and the hydrogen infrastructure could be optimally integrated at BMW so that unproductive travel times with the vehicles are eliminated. BMW also uses the waste heat to heat the hall. The French retailer Carrefour has also already tested forklifts with fuel cells at its logistics center. In the EU-funded HyLIFT-EUROPE project, Carrefour used a total of 137 hydrogen-powered vehicles from Still GmbH by the end of 2018, demonstrating that the technology can prove its worth in fast-paced everyday logistics operations.
When are hydrogen-powered industrial trucks worthwhile?
In 2019, a study by Clean Intralogistics Net (CIN) showed that fuel cells make economic sense in intralogistics, especially where larger fleets with high utilization are used. However, the evaluation must take into account the individual requirements and circumstances of the location and company. The manufacturer Linde Material Handling has been producing low-lift trucks, tractors, reach trucks as well as counterbalanced trucks with fuel cells for 10 years. Linde states that the systems can be economically viable from a use of around 20 vehicles. For companies that use hydrogen in production anyway, the concept is even more attractive because the hydrogen infrastructure is then already in place. The German government is now also promoting investments in environmentally friendly hydrogen drives in intralogistics, most recently with 5 million euros. Users from the logistics industry were able to apply for an investment cost grant of 40 percent of the additional investment costs until November 20, 2020. Funding was provided for material handling vehicle fleets powered by fuel cells and for the refueling infrastructure.
Hydrogen in air traffic
Hydrogen is also expected to make air travel cleaner. Here, too, electric drives are making progress, but there is still a long way to go before electric passenger planes of today’s size are available. The problem is the same as with trucks: the more range, the heavier the battery. Fuel cells are therefore also being discussed as an alternative for aircraft, as are hydrogen combustion engines or a combination of both. There are still many question marks about range, the accommodation of hydrogen in the aircraft, or the effects of water vapor on cloud formation. The development of hydrogen aircraft is also still in its infancy. One provider that says it is on its way there is ZeroAvia from the UK. The company aims to obtain approval for a hydrogen aircraft with a range of 500 kilometers for 10 to 20 passengers in as little as three years. Airbus is also focusing on hydrogen: The aircraft manufacturer assumes that only hydrogen will be considered as an energy source for long-distance air travel. Airbus is working on both fuel cell engines and engines that replace kerosene with hydrogen.
Sense and nonsense of e-fuels
Another option for powering aircraft with hydrogen is synthetic fuels, known as e-fuels. In the process, hydrogen is first generated from electricity. The hydrogen is then combined with CO2, which comes from industrial processes or biomass or is taken from the ambient air. This results in synthetic diesel, synthetic gasoline or synthetic gas. If the electricity comes entirely from renewable sources and the CO2 comes from the atmosphere, biomass, or industrial exhaust, e-fuels are carbon-neutral. However, the approach is controversial because the efficiency is very low due to multiple conversion. The efficiency of e-fuels is around 13 percent. This means that only 13 percent of the electrical power used can be used in the aircraft or vehicle. Electric drives that use electricity directly are many times more efficient. Nevertheless, e-fuels may be an option for aviation or shipping as long as electrification is difficult to achieve there.
Public hydrogen refueling stations: The current status
Of course, freight transport with hydrogen vehicles will only work with a nationwide network of hydrogen refueling stations. This does not yet exist, although Germany is a leader in Europe. This is the conclusion of the “Progress Report 2020” published by the European automotive association ACEA, which looks at the current status of zero-emission mobility. There are currently 137 hydrogen filling stations across Europe, 76 of them in Germany. That’s not much, but at least their number is rising: at the end of 2018, there were only 47 of them across Europe. It is clear that more needs to happen here if hydrogen is to play a greater role as a form of propulsion.
Fraunhofer study: 140 hydrogen filling stations are sufficient
A study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI showed that 140 hydrogen filling stations would be sufficient to supply all fuel cell trucks in Germany with hydrogen in 2050. According to the ISI, this will cost around nine billion euros per year. However, according to the study, the hydrogen refueling stations currently available in Germany for passenger cars are not suitable, or only suitable to a limited extent, for trucks, since they cannot ensure either the required quantities of hydrogen or rapid refueling. Fraunhofer ISI points out that the hydrogen infrastructure must be expanded rapidly in order to meet EU targets for reducing greenhouse gases in transport. According to the study, 70 hydrogen filling stations, some of them smaller, will be needed for just under 50,000 fuel cell trucks in 2030.
The hydrogen strategy of the German government
For the German government, hydrogen is central to the path to a climate-neutral future. It is intended to decarbonize not only the transport sector, but also industry, especially the chemical and steel sectors. In total, the German government plans to fund hydrogen projects with 7 billion euros. This money is part of the economic stimulus package approved in June 2020. The money is to be used, among other things, for tenders for electrolysis plants to produce hydrogen for the transport sector or for e-fuels for aviation. The refueling infrastructure and hydrogen networks are also to be expanded, and hydrogen projects in transport are to be promoted.
Where does all the hydrogen come from?
A much-discussed question is how Germany can obtain sufficient green hydrogen to make industry and transportation climate-neutral. Up to now, hydrogen has been produced mainly from natural gas. One thing is clear: Germany cannot produce enough green hydrogen itself without imports. The German Federal Ministry of Economics is therefore already establishing hydrogen partnerships with other countries. As early as 2021, the federal government wants to start producing green hydrogen in regions with plenty of wind and sun. The focus is on North and West Africa as well as Australia. However, it is also a fact that the generation capacities for green electricity worldwide are currently not sufficient to implement the energy transition with green hydrogen. Whether and how this will ever be possible is unclear.
Clean heavy-duty transport: Hydrogen march! | Süddeutsche Zeitung Hydrogen in Logistics | Hessian Ministry of Economics, Energy, Transport and Housing Tolls and a lot of subsidies | Verkehrs Rundschau Hydrogen in logistics: Apply now for subsidies for industrial truck fleets with Brenn | PT Magazine Why forklift fleets will run on hydrogen in the future | Industrial Technology Into the future with hydrogen | Linde Pioneering use of hydrogen in intralogistics | STILL GmbH Countries with the most hydrogen refueling stations | statista Hydrogen: Federal ministries divide up funding billions | energate messenger Biofuels have rightly fallen into disrepute | golem.de Hydrogen instead of kerosene – These are the three aircraft ideas of the future | World MAN hydrogen trucks: First prototypes from 2021 | eurotransport Courageous founder relies on hydrogen engine | Merkur Fuel cell trucks: 140 filling stations are enough | Fraunhofer ISI Commercial vehicles with fuel cell | auto motor und sport Is hydrogen a climate saver in trucks? | Tract Image Source: © Nikola Corporation