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The Future of Lorries: Could Hydrogen Be a Potential Fuel Option?

7 November 2022

Rising fuel prices and greener policies have pushed electric vehicles to the forefront in recent years. And closer attention is now turning to HGVs, as manufacturers face a predicament over which fuel option is the best long-term solution for net-zero HGVs. Government regulatory changes, in addition to B2B and B2C customers’ demands for greener transportation, has meant the transport and logistics industry must adapt and rapidly decarbonise.

Currently, there is an ongoing discussion as to whether hydrogen could be a potential contender when it comes to fuelling lorries as opposed to direct electrification. In fact, hydrogen has been predicted as the likely champion in the UK’s hydrogen vs. electric truck battle. Hydrogen offers many advantages to make emissions-free road freight a reality for HGVs. In other countries, corporations like Mercedes-Benz have gone down the route of electric powered lorries, whilst others like Hyundai Motor, DAF and Toyota have opted for hydrogen-powered trucks. And in the UK, Tevva made history back in July, launching the first hydrogen fuel cell-supported HGV in the country.

In this article, we’ll discuss the benefits of hydrogen-powered lorries, and the differences it has to electric-powered lorries, to determine if hydrogen could be a sustainable fuel source for commercial fleets.

How to Make Hydrogen Fuel

To make hydrogen fuel, you can either electrolyse water using electricity, or through reforming methane, sourced from either natural gas or biomass. Once the methane reforming has taken place, the carbon dioxide that results from it can be isolated so that it doesn’t go into the atmosphere – this type of technology is in the early stages of implementation in the UK.

Fuelling an HGV with Hydrogen: Why?

Using hydrogen as fuel is one of the greenest options for vehicles, since its only tailpipe emission is heated water vapour. It has been utilised safely in buses and other vehicles in many other countries for many years and has a higher energy density than lithium-ion batteries and diesel. And it’s because of these factors, that hydrogen has become an attractive option for use in larger, commercial vehicles.

Hydrogen as a fuel source offers the following benefits:

  1. Renewable and readily available – hydrogen is the most abundant element in the world and despite the challenges it poses with its extraction from water, is a renewable source of energy, making it perfect for our future net-zero needs.
  2. Longer usage times and quicker refuel times – hydrogen fuel cells are able to deliver longer usage times and quicker refuel times compared to battery electric-powered HGVs. Plus, hydrogen fuel cells, unlike electric-powered vehicles, are not affected as significantly by outside temperature and do not deteriorate in cold weather. As well as this, a hydrogen truck can be refuelled in around about the same time as a diesel truck, and the operating range and operating patterns are similar too. This means hydrogen-powered HGVs could fit into existing logistics systems without having to modify too much.
  3. Availability – hydrogen availability is likely to increase as it becomes a beneficial fuel source in other industries like heating, aviation and maritime.
  4. Storage properties – hydrogen can be a useful storage vector for excess renewable energy.
  5. Highly efficient – hydrogen is more efficient than many other energy sources and it’s this fuel efficiency that allows the production of more energy per pound of fuel. For example, with a standard vehicle, if the hydrogen fuel cells use 40 to 60% of the fuel’s energy, it’ll still offer a 50% reduction in fuel consumption.
  6. Near-zero emissions – unlike most fuels, hydrogen fuel cells do not produce the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when burned, therefore reducing pollution, and improving air quality.
  7. Fast refuelling times – refuelling a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is significantly quicker than recharging battery-powered electric vehicles. For example, refuelling a 500-mile range hydrogen-powered lorry can be done in 15 minutes, while recharging battery electric models are more likely to be closer to 6 hours.
  8. Clean energy source – hydrogen fuel cells offer a clean source of energy, since there are no detrimental environmental impacts during operation as the by-products are simply heat and water.


Fuelling an HGV with Hydrogen: How?

There are two ways hydrogen can be used to power an HGV:

  1. Pick a fuel cell that uses hydrogen to produce electricity to power an electric motor –instead of using the batteries you would find in a regular EV, vehicles of this type use hydrogen-powered fuel cells. As the fuel cells are lighter than batteries, it means hydrogen-powered HGVs could have faster acceleration and more horsepower than the current diesel lorries. Energy is stored on board HGVs as hydrogen, which is converted to electricity in fuel cells. This approach does not produce any tail pipe emissions – the only by-products are warm air and water vapour. HGVs powered this way will need to refuel at hydrogen refuelling stations.
  2. Use hydrogen as fuel in a combustion engine – this is like the current diesel engines in use. However, HGVs powered in this way are generally less efficient than fuel cell vehicles. Plus, they’re not zero emission as they emit pollutant emissions such as NOx.


Hydrogen vs Electric

An alternative to hydrogen power is battery electric power, which has been a popular choice in the domestic and light goods vehicle market. It’s a credible approach for decarbonising long-haul road freight, but the larger a vehicle gets – and the more time needed for running the vehicle – the more hydrogen holds more of an advantage. The issue with using battery electric-powered lorries comes back to one key factor – energy density. In order to match the weight of HGVs, more battery units can be added to the design to increase the available power. However, more cells also equates to more expense in already profit-challenged vehicles. Hydrogen gas is more than 100x as energy-dense as a lithium-ion battery, and hydrogen lorries designed by the likes of Nikola and Hyzon are likely to offer at least double the energy density of battery-powered systems, as well as reducing purchase costs down by more than 70% over the next decade.

With electric power, technical performance can struggle for HGVs. Hydrogen fuel cells offer more energy storage density, as well as greater driving range, reduced weight, and a shorter recharging time. Therefore, it could be argued that battery electric-powered HGVs are not as economic or sustainable as a power solution when looking to reduce carbon emissions in such vehicles.


Fuelling an HGV with Hydrogen: Cost

Since hydrogen fuel cells are in a much earlier stage of development than lithium-ion batteries, the cost of this type of technology will be steeper over the next few years than it is for electric batteries. However, once the cost of fuel cells and liquification technology falls, the capacity of hydrogen tanks will allow for a lower cost of ownership for commercial fleets.  In fact, due to falling costs in hydrogen fuel and subsidies, the parity between fuel cell trucks and fossil-powered HGVs could be reached in cost of ownership terms by 2026. This will lead to a rapid uptake in purchases and deliveries prior to 2035, where it’s estimated that 1.5 million fuel cell trucks and buses will be delivering goods and transporting passengers globally, followed by an exponential increase to approximately 24.7 million by 2050.

Hydrogen being utilised as a fuel source for HGVS will play a vital role in helping us to decarbonise the transport and logistics industry. In the UK, HGVs like Tevva’s hydrogen truck, will be crucial to accomplishing the government’s emissions reduction plans that aim to tackle climate change. That’s not to say that going down the route of battery electric-powered HGVs is not a credible approach – but there are some advantages that could potentially give hydrogen the upper hand in the coming future.

If you’d like to talk to us more about your fleet and how we can help, call us on 0808 178 9977 or chat to one of our agents right now.