Hydrogen-powered vehicles: A realistic path to clean energy?

18th August, 2021.      //   General Interest  // 

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(AP) CANTON, Ohio – More than a dozen buses drive up to a fuelling station each morning at a transit facility in Canton, Ohio, before dispersing on their routes in this city south of Cleveland.

The buses, which are manufactured by El Dorado National and operated by the Stark Area Regional Transit Authority, appear to be ordinary. Nonetheless, taken together, they represent the cutting edge of a technology that has the potential to play a significant role in the development of greener intercity transportation. One-fourth of the agency’s buses run on hydrogen instead of polluting diesel fuel. They just release water vapor, which is completely safe.

Hydrogen, the most plentiful element in the universe, is increasingly being considered, alongside electric cars, as a means of reducing the planet’s 1.2 billion automobiles’ environmental effect, the majority of which burn gasoline and diesel fuel. Large truck and commercial vehicle manufacturers are beginning to see hydrogen fuel cell technologies as a viable option.  Plane, railway, and passenger vehicle manufacturers are among them.

Transportation is the single largest contributor to climate change in the United States, which is why hydrogen power is viewed as a potentially vital option to help decrease carbon emissions in the long term.

To be sure, hydrogen isn’t a magical substance. For the time being, natural gas or coal are used to create the hydrogen that is produced globally each year, mostly for refineries and fertilizer manufacturing. This process pollutes the air, warming rather than cooling the earth. Indeed, a new study by researchers from Cornell and Stanford universities found that most hydrogen production emits carbon dioxide, which means that hydrogen-fueled transportation cannot yet be considered clean energy.

Yet proponents of hydrogen-powered transportation say that in the long run, hydrogen production is destined to become more environmentally safe. They see an increasing usage of electricity generated by wind and solar energy to extract hydrogen and oxygen from water. As a result of the increased usage of renewable energy sources, hydrogen manufacturing should become a cleaner and less expensive process.

General Motors, Navistar, and J.B. Hunt, a trucking company, aim to establish filling stations and drive hydrogen trucks on various U.S. highways within three years. To transport cargo from ships to warehouses, Toyota, Kenworth, and the Port of Los Angeles have began testing hydrogen trucks.

Partnerships have also been announced by Volvo Trucks, Daimler Trucks AG, and other manufacturers. The firms want to turn their study into a commercial product, such as zero-emission vehicles that save money and comply with tighter environmental rules.

In 2018, a hydrogen-powered train entered service in Germany, with more on the way. Airbus, the world’s largest airplane maker, is also investigating hydrogen as an option.

Shawn Litster, a professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied hydrogen fuel cells for almost two decades, stated, “This is about the closest I’ve seen us get so far to that real turning point.”

Fertilizer, steel, petroleum, concrete, and chemicals have all used hydrogen as a feedstock for a long time. It’s also been operating cars for a long time: Hydrogen-powered forklifts account for around 35,000 in the United States, or about 4% of all forklifts. Its future usage on highways to transport big quantities of goods may see diesel-burning pollutants phased out.

No one knows when, or even if, hydrogen will become a widely used fuel. Toyota’s head of advanced technologies in North America, Craig Scott, estimates that a hydrogen truck will be ready for sale in two years. It will be critical to build more fuelling stations if widespread acceptance is to be achieved.

Other transport systems have expressed such interest in the technology, according to Kirt Conrad, CEO of Canton’s transit authority since 2009, that SARTA takes its buses across the country for demonstrations. Canton’s system has grown from three hydrogen buses in 2016 to eleven since then. It has also constructed a fuelling station. Hydrogen buses are in the fleets of two California transit systems: Oakland and Riverside County.

“We’ve demonstrated that our buses are reliable and cost-efficient, and as a result, we’re breaking down barriers that have slowed wider adoption of the technology,” Conrad stated.

The trial at the Port of Los Angeles began in April, when the first of five semis equipped with Toyota hydrogen powertrains began transporting cargo to facilities 60 miles distant in Ontario, California. Ten semis will be built as part of the $82.5 million public-private partnership.

President Joe Biden’s proposals to decrease emissions in half by 2030 include hydrogen fuel. The Senate adopted an infrastructure plan this week that contains $9 billion for research to lower the cost of producing clean hydrogen as well as regional hydrogen production centers.

Long-haul transportation looks to be the greatest hope for hydrogen adoption early on. Fuel cells, which convert hydrogen gas into energy, have a greater range than battery-electric trucks, are more reliable in cold weather, and can be refueled much more quickly than electric batteries. Proponents argue that hydrogen cars have an advantage over electric vehicles in taxis and delivery trucks because of their quick refilling time.

Green Tomato Cars, located in London, relies on 60 hydrogen fuel cell-powered Toyota Mirai vehicles in its 500-car zero-emission fleet to transport business clients. Jonny Goldstone, one of the company’s co-founders, claims that his drivers can go over 300 miles (500 kilometers) on a single tank and refill in three minutes.

“If they have to spend 40, 50 minutes, an hour, two hours plugging a car in in in the middle of the working day, that for them is just not acceptable,” Goldstone added, because drivers’ wages are based on fares.

Green Tomato is now one of the largest operators of hydrogen vehicles in Europe, with around 2,000 fuel cell cars, trash trucks, and delivery vans on the road.

In the United States, about 7,500 hydrogen fuel cell automobiles are on the road, primarily in California. The automobiles, which cost thousands more than gasoline-powered vehicles, are made by Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai. There are 45 public fueling stations in California, with more planned or in the works.

Unlike buses and large trucks, experts believe that electric battery power, rather than hydrogen, is the future of passenger vehicles in the United States. On a very modest battery, fully electric vehicles can drive further than most people need to go.

And, for the time being, hydrogen generation is increasing rather than decreasing pollution. The globe generates roughly 75 million tons of CO2 each year, the majority of which comes from carbon-emitting activities such as natural gas steam reformation. China burns coal that is more polluting.

The production of so-called “blue” hydrogen from natural gas necessitates an extra step. Carbon dioxide is released throughout the process and is stored under the earth’s surface. According to the Cornell and Stanford studies, producing blue hydrogen emits 20% more carbon than using natural gas or coal for heat.

That is why industrial experts are concentrating their efforts on electrolysis, a process that utilizes electricity to extract hydrogen and oxygen from water. In a vehicle’s fuel cell, hydrogen reacts with oxygen to generate electricity.  According to Joe Cargnelli, head of hydrogen technologies at Cummins, which produces electrolyzers and fuel cell power systems, the quantity of electricity generated by wind and solar is increasing across the world, making electrolysis cleaner and cheaper.

Making a hydrogen truck and producing the fuel now costs more than putting a diesel-powered vehicle on the road. In California, hydrogen costs around $13 per kilogram, and one kilogram has somewhat more energy than a gallon of diesel fuel. Diesel fuel, on the other hand, is just approximately $3.25 per gallon in the United States.

However, analysts predict that the gap will decrease.

“As they scale up the technology for production, the hydrogen should come down,” Carnegie Mellon’s Litster stated.

While a diesel semi can cost approximately $150,000 depending on its configuration, the cost of fuel cell vehicles is unknown. Nikola, a fledgling electric and hydrogen fuel cell truck manufacturer, predicted last year that each hydrogen semi it sold would bring in roughly $235,000 in revenue.

Clean power might one day be utilized to produce and store hydrogen at a rail yard, where it could be used to refuel locomotives and semis while emitting zero emissions.

Cummins predicts significant hydrogen use in the United States by 2030, owing to tighter diesel pollution laws and government zero-emissions car mandates. Europe has already established ambitious green hydrogen objectives to promote its usage.

“That’s just going to blow the market open and kind of drive it,” Cargnelli explained. “Then you’ll see other places like North America kind of follow suit.”