Zero In on…Hydrogen Hopes

Hydrogen fuel cells are widely considered to be the answer to zero emissions transport over long distances are hauling heavy payloads, or those operations that require fast fueling times comparable to diesel.

But what is a fuel cell? And how do they perform in the real world. These topics and more were addressed at the Greentech education sessions at this year’s Truck World. To kick start the conversation, Michael Procter, principal fuel stock architect with cellcentric, gave an overview of how the technology works.

Michael Procter: Fuel cell is basically, like, I would call it a gas battery. So it looks like a battery and acts like a battery, except rather than having a couple of metals that you use to exchange electrons with one another, you have a couple of gases, which is generally oxygen and hydrogen.

And the byproduct of those two gases reacting is water. So, we have the fuel cell and that’s located in the center of the system. And then surrounding it, you have systems that supply the fuel cell with its reactants.

So basically, you have an air compressor, which looks very much like a turbocharger that you know, from a diesel engine, and a fuel pump that pumps the fuel into the hydrogen side.

And when those compressor and those pumps are pumping, then the fuel cells making electricity. The fuel cell makes about 0.6 volts or so but they make a very high amperage, so you stack them up to get the voltage that you want.

And a typical fuel cell will operate in the basically hundreds of amps range. Each fuel cell actually has three circuits. It’s got an air circuit, cooling circuit and a fuel circuit. The fuel and the air are separated by a polymer membrane, and that polymer membrane is a is a conductor of protons.

And so, when you supply the air and the fuel on either side of the conductive membrane, then the hydrogen will separate into protons and electrons, and then they will go through the circuit.

The electrons will meet up with oxygen on the other side, and form water with the oxygen. The protons, which is a hydrogen molecule, are part the hard part of the hydrogen that travels through the membrane. And so, the proton and the electron and the oxygen all meet up to form H2O. That’s how they work.

That may sound very complex, but how do hydrogen fuel cell trucks perform in the real world? Few fleets can answer that question today. But the exception is Bison Transport, which has been testing Nikola Tre fuel-cell-electric trucks in Alberta. Mike Gomes, vice-president of maintenance with Bison, explains what that experience has been like.

Mike Gomes: We did do the first run down between Calgary from Edmonton to Calgary and back. The trailer was unloaded at the time, it was an opportunity for us to test the technology and get familiar with it.

The driver, you know, I’ll give full credit to our driver group who have been engaged in understanding the technology and doing the training required for fueling, and how to handle the equipment.

They’re all in there. They’re enjoying the opportunity to see what the future looks like. You know, when we look at the truck that Nikola [built] it is a unique vehicle in the North American market being a cabover, so there was that piece of it, there was that excitement around it.

But also, not just that, it was the operational characteristics. The silence. Obviously we know it’s a very quiet vehicle and operating wind noise, you’re gonna hear every squeak and rattle now so to all the manufacturers make sure you’ve got tight tolerances.

But the lack of fumes was another factor that the driver cited that drivers have talked about. You know, at the end of the day, they’re not you know, they’re not smelling like diesel fuel, they’re not having to handle the diesel fuel. It makes a big difference. Something we didn’t think of when we first set out on this but definitely a piece that the drivers do appreciate.

While the Nikola Tre fuel-cell-electric truck proved capable in early testing, Bison is also involved in the AZETEC project with the Alberta Motor Transport Association. It looks to push the limit and prove hydrogen can also be used to support heavier payloads and harsher conditions. Gomes gave an update on that project as well.

Mike Gomes: The AZETEC project is probably the biggest day cab you’ll ever see. It’s about a 300-inch wheelbase, day cab tractor.

The intention is that it’s a hand-built model with off-the-shelf components, you know some new technologies that are incorporated into it.

The idea was that we see a lot of the tractors in the Canadian market as very unique. We see a lot of the – you know, the latest generation the new emissions technology vehicles in a lighter application as we move into, you know, adopting these technologies.

The idea behind the AZETEC project was proof of concept that these technologies could work in a Canadian environment with the higher weight rating so 63,500 kilogram gross vehicle weight combination rating.

In our instance, we’re hauling two 53-foot trailers in what we call a long combination vehicle format and running those between Calgary and Edmonton. And the objective was to prove that this technology is ready for the Canadian market. And as we get ready to launch later this year, we’re very excited about the opportunity to showcase this.