More than 12 buses arrive at Canton’s transit station in Ohio each morning to fill up before heading south to Cleveland.
These buses, owned by Stark Area Regional Transit Authority and El Dorado National, look just like other buses. They are a collection of buses that look like any other. However, together they represent the cutting-edge technology that could lead to cleaner inter-city transport. One-fourth of agency buses are powered by hydrogen instead of polluting diesel fuel. They only emit harmless water vapour.
Hydrogen, which is the most abundant element of the universe, is being increasingly seen, along with electric cars, as a way to reduce the environmental impact of the planet’s 1.2 million vehicles that burn gasoline or diesel fuel. As a way to move forward, manufacturers of large trucks and commercial vehicles are embracing hydrogen fuel cell technology. The same goes for manufacturers of passenger cars, trains, and planes.
The single largest U.S. contributor of climate change is transportation. Therefore, hydrogen power is considered a potential way to reduce carbon emissions.
Hydrogen is far from a miracle cure, but it’s not impossible to make. The hydrogen produced each year globally, mainly for fertilizer manufacturing and refineries, is made from natural gas or coal. This pollutes the atmosphere and causes global warming rather than preserving it. Researchers from Stanford and Cornell universities have found that the majority of hydrogen produced emits carbon dioxide. This means that hydrogen-powered transportation cannot be considered clean energy.
Proponents of hydrogen-powered transport argue that hydrogen production will become safer in the long term. They see a rising use of electricity from solar and wind energy that can separate hydrogen and oxygen in the water. Hydrogen production will become cleaner and more affordable as renewable energy sources gain greater use.
General Motors, Navistar, and J.B. Hunt, a trucking company, plan to construct fueling stations and operate hydrogen trucks on numerous U.S. freeways within three years. Toyota, Kenworth, and the Port of Los Angeles began testing hydrogen trucks to transport goods from ships to warehouses.
Volvo Trucks, Daimler Trucks AG, and other manufacturers have also announced partnerships. These companies plan to commercialize their research and offer zero-emission trucks that are more cost-effective and comply with stricter environmental regulations.
A hydrogen-powered train started operating in Germany in 2018 and there are more. French-based Airbus is also considering hydrogen.
Shawn Litster, a Carnegie Mellon University professor in mechanical engineering who has been studying hydrogen fuel cells for almost two decades, said that “This is about how close I’ve seen us get to that real turning point.”
Since long, hydrogen has been used as a fuel for the production of fertilizer and steel, concrete, petroleum, concrete, and chemicals. It has also been powering vehicles for many years. In the United States, around 35,000 forklifts, or 4%, are powered with hydrogen. It could eventually be used on roads to transport heavy cargo loads.
Nobody knows when or if hydrogen will become widespread. Craig Scott, Toyota North America’s head for advanced technology, said that the company is only two years away from having a hydrogen-powered truck available for sale. To ensure widespread adoption, it will be important to build more fueling stations.
Kirt Conrad is the CEO of Canton’s transit authority. He says that other transit systems have expressed so much interest in the technology, that SARTA has taken its buses all over the country to demonstrate it. Canton’s transit authority, which purchased its first three hydrogen buses back in 2016, has added 11 more. It also has a fueling station. In California, two transit agencies, Riverside County and Oakland, have hydrogen buses in the fleet.
Conrad stated, “We have proven that our buses can be reliable and cost-efficient and as such, we are breaking down any barriers that may have hindered wider adoption of this technology.”
In April, the Port of Los Angeles began testing the five semis equipped with Toyota hydrogen powertrains. The first of the five semis started hauling freight to Ontario warehouses, California, which is about 60 miles away. The $82.5 million public/private project will eventually have 10 semis.
President Joe Biden has included hydrogen fuel in his plans to reduce emissions by half by 2030. This week’s Senate approval of the infrastructure bill includes $9 billion to support research and development in order to lower the cost of hydrogen production.
Long-haul trucking seems to be the best option for hydrogen adoption. The fuel cells convert hydrogen gas to electricity and have a greater range than batteries-electric trucks. They can also be recharged much quicker than electric batteries. The hydrogen vehicle’s short refueling times give them an advantage over electric vehicles that are used in delivery trucks or taxis.
This advantage was crucial for London-based Green Tomato Cars. It uses 60 hydrogen fuel cell-powered Toyota Mirai cars to transport corporate clients. Jonny Goldstone, co-founder, said that his drivers can travel more than 300 miles (500 km) on one tank and can refuel in just three minutes.
Goldstone stated that drivers’ earnings are dependent on fares. “If they have to spend 40-50 minutes, an hour or two hours plugging in a car in during the work day, that is unacceptable.”
Green Tomato is currently the largest operator of hydrogen vehicles in Europe’s small market. There are approximately 2,000 fuel cells cars, trucks, and delivery vans.
There are approximately 7,500 hydrogen fuel-cell cars on the roads in the U.S., mainly in California. The cars are manufactured by Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai. They cost thousands more than gasoline-powered models. California boasts 45 public fueling stations. More are under construction or planned.
Experts say that electric battery power is the future of passenger cars in America, and not hydrogen, unlike buses and heavy trucks. Fully electric vehicles can travel further than the majority of people on a small battery.
For now, hydrogen production adds to pollution rather than reduces it. Globally, 75 million tons of hydrogen are produced each year. Most of this is created by carbon-emitting processes such as steam reformation of natural gases. China uses more polluting coal.
Natural gas is required to make “blue” hydrogen. This chemical can be made by adding an additional step. The carbon dioxide that is emitted during the process is stored below the surface of the earth. According to the Stanford and Cornell studies, blue hydrogen manufacturing emitted 20% more carbon dioxide than heating natural gas or coal.
Industry researchers are focusing on electrolysis which uses electricity to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water. To produce power, hydrogen is mixed with oxygen in the vehicle’s fuel cells. According to Joe Cargnelli (director of hydrogen technologies at Cummins), the amount of electricity produced by solar and wind is increasing around the world, making electrolysis more affordable and cleaner.
It costs more to build a hydrogen truck than it does to produce the fuel. California’s hydrogen costs $13 per kilogram. 1 kilogram of hydrogen can provide slightly more energy than one gallon diesel fuel. Diesel fuel, on the other hand, is $3.25 per gallon in America.
Experts say the gap will shrink.
Carnegie Mellon’s Litster stated that hydrogen prices should drop as they increase the production technology.
A diesel semi can be as high as $150,000, depending on its configuration. However, it is not clear how much it would cost to buy fuel cell trucks. Nikola, a maker of hydrogen fuel cell trucks and startup electric vehicles, estimates that each hydrogen semi it sells will bring in about $235,000
One day, clean electricity could be used to produce and store hydrogen at rail yards, where it could be used to refuel semis and locomotives with zero emissions.
Cummins predicts widespread hydrogen use in America by 2030. This is accelerated by tighter diesel emissions regulations, and zero-emission vehicle requirements. Europe has already set ambitious targets for green hydrogen to increase its use.
Cargnelli stated, “That’s just gonna blow the market open. It kind of drives it.” “Then, you’ll see other countries like North America follow suit.”