Freight transportation: On the cusp of a hydrogen-powered future

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Russell Edson gives a status update about the hydrogen developments for freight transportation, from trucks and trains to ships and aircraft.

In the battle for dominance between hydrogen and battery electric power, the latter appears to have won the hearts and minds of consumers.

However, recent technological advances affecting the way hydrogen fuel is produced, stored and distributed have improved its viability for heavy-weight, industrial-scale transport applications.

From trucks and trains to ships and aircraft, hydrogen power could hold the key to a greener future for freight transportation.

Targets set by the UK Government as part of its commitment to the Climate Change Agreement mean heavy goods vehicles will be strictly limited when it comes to CO2 emissions in the coming years.

By 2025, a 15% reduction in emissions is required, and by 2030, this will increase to 30%. As such, the freight industry is in need of a practical and efficient green solution, which could come in the form of hydrogen fuel.

Benefits of hydrogen for freight transport

Hydrogen is particularly suitable as a fuel for freight transport vehicles because of its high energy density, with one kilogram of hydrogen delivering the same power as a gallon of diesel.

It is also much quicker to refuel a hydrogenpowered vehicle than recharging one with an electric motor. This can help to reduce a commercial vehicle’s downtime, optimising efficiency and profits.

Before freight transport operators invest in switching to a hydrogen-powered fleet, however, some significant infrastructure improvements are needed. In particular, investment is needed to provide more electrolysers, compressors, storage facilities, tanks and pipelines.

Nevertheless, there are some exciting examples of hydrogen-powered freight innovation underway. ABB has teamed up with HDF Energy, a hydrogen-based solutions pioneer, to develop a large-scale hydrogen fuel cell system capable of powering a zero-emissions electric container ship.

Shipping giants such as NYK, MSC and CMA CGM have also joined the Hydrogen Council in an attempt to accelerate R&D programmes to develop hydrogen-based fuels. Part of their vision includes powering a fleet of freight ships by 2050.

Rail is another area where hydrogen is increasingly considered a viable and sustainable fuel source, with Deutsche Bahn and Siemens aiming to create a new hydrogen-powered rail system comprising a newly built train refuelling station. Although this is being designed with passenger travel in mind, it is likely that the result could also be adapted for freight.

Leading the development of hydrogen-powered road vehicles, Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility AG has developed a new range of trucks. Renewable energy sources are used to produce the hydrogen needed to fuel the vehicles, ensuring they generate zero carbon emissions.

However, at present, these trucks can only be hired on a pay-per-use basis, and there are a limited number available.

Although steps are being made in the right direction, these projects are all relatively early stage and mainstream use of hydrogen-powered freight transport solutions still seems some years away.

Production challenges

If such solutions are to help tackle the climate change crisis, innovators must focus on solving the problems associated with the production and storage of hydrogen.

The most common ‘clean’ method of hydrogen production at present is electrolysis, where water is split into hydrogen and oxygen. However, the process is extremely energy-intensive, with typical commercial electrolysis
units needing about 50 kilowatt-hours per kilogram.

As such, this method of hydrogen power generation is both expensive and inefficient. Other innovative methods of production include steam methane reforming, which generates greenhouse gases and therefore cancels out some of the environmental benefits that hydrogen-powered vehicles could otherwise bring.

Research scientists have even explored the potential of algae to address some of the issues associated with hydrogen production.

The organism naturally produces hydrogen, but it doesn’t produce enough to be commercially viable as a means of power generation.

Attempts to increase its production rate have been made, but with limited success, as oxygen inactivates the hydrogenase enzyme and other processes within the algae’s cell structure compete for electrons.

Before freight transport operators invest in switching to a hydrogen-powered fleet, however, some significant infrastructure improvements are needed

Russell Edson

However, innovators at Tel Aviv University and Arizona State University have developed a solution. The PSI-hydrogenase chimera technology works by repositioning the algae’s hydrogenase within the algae’s cell structure, allowing it to directly capture electrons, therefore removing the issue of competition. These modified algae cells are capable of producing large volumes of hydrogen, as long as they have sufficient light.

Another innovative hydrogen production method that is currently being explored involves the use of solar power.

SunHydrogen, a California-based tech company, has been granted a patent in the US for an artificial photosynthetic battery made up of billions of nanoparticles.

These nanoparticles each function as an autonomous nano-solar cell, containing catalysts for splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen. A protective layer increases the photovoltages of the nanoparticles, resulting in a more efficient solar-to-hydrogen transformation.

If this method proves viable, it could be a highly efficient and cost-effective way to produce hydrogen on a large scale.

Storage solutions

Moving on to the issue of hydrogen storage, a number of important challenges remain that are preventing the mainstream application of hydrogen-powered vehicles.

These include the weight and volume of current hydrogen storage systems, poor energy efficiency and durability, and high costs.

To improve efficiency, vehicle manufacturer BMW has been experimenting with a technology known as cryo-compression.

Using a hybrid method that combines compressed gas and liquid hydrogen, the storage tank must be designed to withstand the internal pressure created by cryogenic fluid.

Despite having a high density and durability, these storage systems are not expensive to manufacture.

Cryo-compression tanks also reduce boil-off, which is the hydrogen lost to the atmosphere due to heat input. BMW’s system has a hydrogen boil-off rate of 3–7 g/h and the large capacity of the tank means that a significant amount of hydrogen fuel remains, even after a period of non-use.

Another more unusual storage innovation comes in the form of a paste. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany have developed a magnesium-based ‘Powerpaste’ that stores hydrogen at ten times the density of a lithium battery.

Its benefits include increased range compared to traditional ICE vehicles, and the ability to refuel in minutes.

This technology involves combining magnesium with hydrogen at around 350 degrees Celsius and five to six times atmospheric pressure. An ester and a metal salt are then added, creating a viscous grey substance that can then be loaded into cartridges.

A plunger mechanism is used to release the energy, with the paste being pushed into a chamber where it reacts with water, which then feeds a fuel cell to create electrical power.

At present, this method of hydrogen power generation is being considered for e-scooters and smaller vehicles, but it could be developed further.

The importance of patents

In an evolving market and with growing pressure on the freight industry to reduce carbon emissions, it is vital that innovators apply for patents at an early stage in the research and development process.

This will enable them to gain a stake in an emerging market, which they can commercialise when the time is right, at the same time as helping to deter reverse engineers from copying their inventions.

A robust intellectual property (IP) portfolio can also open doors for smaller companies looking to make their mark in the industry, making it possible for them to collaborate with larger organisations.

Such collaborations can not only increase the rate of innovation but also give SMEs exposure to a wider share of the market.

While mainstream use of hydrogen-powered transport solutions is still some years away, a recent surge in innovation activity suggests a breakthrough could be imminent.

With consumers and policymakers increasingly focused on protecting the environment, hydrogen fuel could help drive the way to a more sustainable future for all modes of freight transportation.

About the author

Russell Edson is partner and patent attorney in the advanced engineering group at European intellectual property firm Withers & Rogers.