Current State of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Heavy-Duty Trucks and Port Equipment

October 26, 2017

Hydrogen fuel cell heavy-duty vehicles have come a long way since their debut in 2011 (i.e., the prototype hydrogen fuel cell Class 8 truck dubbed the “Tyrano”, by Vision Industries Corporation). While they are still in the R&D lab per see, hydrogen fuel cell heavy-duty vehicles have overcome a number of challenges and obstacles through technological and engineering advancements.

Technological advancements leading to market growth

Six years ago, one of the major issues was the power conversion requirement between a fuel cell engine and the battery pack, with 100 volts and over 650 volts, respectively. To address this problem, power electronics companies engineered DC/DC power converters designed specifically for a fuel cell vehicle application. In addition, fuel cell companies, such as Hydrogenics, worked to increase the voltage output of the fuel cell engine to narrow the voltage jump.

Another advancement by fuel cell companies such as Hydrogenics, US Hybrid, and Ballard was designing a fuel cell engine that can withstand the severe shock and vibration from a heavy-duty application such as drayage trucking.

The businesses of ports and freight want to see a technology that works from the beginning, putting a lot of pressure on the hydrogen fuel cell truck and equipment developers to do well out of the gate.

These advancements, along with State and Federal funding, have lead large OEMs such as Kenworth to enter the hydrogen fuel cell heavy-duty truck market. Toyota has also come into the heavy-duty fuel cell truck space with its launch of Project Portal, a Class 8 truck powered by two Mirai fuel cell stacks. Currently through the DOE ZECT II (zero emission cargo transport II) program there are six hydrogen fuel cell trucks in development, some already performing on road testing, to be deployed over a three-year period in the San Pedro Bay ports.

Hydrogen fueling infrastructure 

One of the key issues today with fuel cell trucks is the lack of fueling infrastructure – an identical problem to the light-duty fuel cell vehicle market. The major issues with fueling fuel cell trucks is the amount of real estate required, proximity to the ports and railyards, and cost. The South Coast Air Quality Management District is well aware of this issue and is pushing for monies to be allocated to heavy-duty hydrogen refueling. For the six trucks in the ZECT II program, a fueling solution will be provided by Air Products using a mobile refueler. Advocates of hydrogen stations to be installed on port land claim that the purpose built heavy-duty stations would have a high utility since there are other fuel cell powered equipment being developed for port applications.

The success of fuel cell forklifts over battery powered forklifts is due to the energy intensive and high utility goods movement applications. Like a warehouse, ports can operate around the clock leaving zero time for battery-powered equipment to recharge. Furthermore, electrical engineers at port authorities such as Port of Los Angeles are apprehensive to installing the large amount of electrical infrastructure required to fully electrify port equipment. Hydrogen fueling can be done in the same work process that diesel fueling is done today.

Terminal tractors are parked in a line on the terminal property and refueled using a mobile refueler. This type of fueling “on the go” can be replicated with hydrogen mobile refuelers filling up at a port adjacent heavy-duty purposed hydrogen station. Companies like Hyster-Yale, after purchasing Nuvera Fuel Cell company, are developing large heavy-duty fuel cell port equipment such as top picks and side picks. These machines appear to be giant forklifts, moving containers around the terminal area. Additionally, fuel cells can be used in shore power applications or “cold ironing” where cargo ships at berth can be plugged into a fuel cell instead of burning dirty bunker fuel in their generators.

Producing hydrogen fuel 

One of the best ways to produce hydrogen in port areas is by using a tri-generation system, as detailed in the University of California, Irvine Assessment of Fuel Cell Technologies to Address Power Requirements at the Port of Long Beach. FuelCell Energy prides itself with the capabilities of the tri-generation system, using carbon fuels such as bio-gas to produce electricity, hydrogen, and heat. A port terminal uses a large amount of electricity for its operations, as many of the cranes are now electric. With the addition of fuel cell equipment, a tri-generation system can make “clean” hydrogen fuel from bio-gas, enabling a zero-emission terminal.

The next hurdle: customer acceptance

With solutions on the vehicle technology and infrastructure side progressing, there arises another challenge to be faced – customer acceptance. On the trucking side, many trucking companies were left with a bad taste in their mouth after the early challenges of compressed natural gas (CNG) trucks. These fleet operators were promised a cleaner technology that could get the same job done of pulling 80,000 pounds. In those early days, what actually happened was a series of engine difficulties and required adaptations by CNG engine manufactures to get the vehicles to work as well as a diesel.

Recently at a California Hydrogen Business Council workshop titled Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in On-Road Freight, Fred Johring, Golden Express Inc, stated the waters have been muddied and both fleet managers and trucking operators alike are nervous to try anything new. The businesses of ports and freight want to see a technology that works from the beginning, putting a lot of pressure on the hydrogen fuel cell truck and port equipment developers to do well out of the gate.

Another major challenge for adopting fuel cell heavy-duty vehicles and equipment is the lack of education and training for this new technology. Learning institutions and curriculums need to be developed in order for new classes of zero-emission vehicles to be properly serviced. Ultimately, the customer (port terminals, trucking companies, etc.) will only accept a solution that makes economic sense. This is why Plug Power has worked tirelessly to perfect the business case for fuel cell forklifts and has now created a model that could be replicated in port applications.

As fuel cell technology continues to advance with higher power densities on the horizon, and fueling solutions are put in place, hydrogen fuel cell trucks and port equipment will become a viable zero-emission option for ports around the world.