Can Liquid Hydrogen Power Long-Distance Trucking?
The trucking industry is pioneering liquid hydrogen-fueled semi-trucks capable of hauling large payloads with less refueling.
The electric vehicle (EV) surge is not the only development frontier in the transportation sector. Multiple companies, including Daimler, have developed and tested liquid hydrogen-powered semi-truck prototypes, which could hit markets later this year.
Daimler Truck’s new GenH2 semi powered by liquid hydrogen. Image used courtesy of Daimler Truck
The energy density, efficiency, and fast refueling liquid hydrogen make it a compelling addition to the possible energy sources available as we shift to greener forms of transportation.
Long-Distance Trucking Challenges
Some may think trucking is an antiquated method of moving goods, but trucking dominates shipping routes and supply chain movement. The trucking industry transports over $10 trillion of goods, accounting for approximately 70% of commercial transport. Trucking dominates the freight between the U.S. and Mexico.
Modes of freight transportation between the U.S. and Mexico. Image used courtesy of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics
These semi trucks contribute substantial greenhouse gasses to the collective carbon footprint. The Environmental Protection Agency notes that up to 23% of greenhouse gas emissions result from the trucking sector. Only light-duty personal vehicles contribute more emissions.
However, trucking faces challenges in the pivot to electric transportation, particularly regarding range and charging.
Diesel semi-trucks can typically travel up to 2,000 miles before needing to refuel. In contrast, newer electric models like the Tesla Semi can only make it to 500 miles before needing to recharge. For drivers, this is a serious drawback, especially in rural and remote areas lacking charging stations and infrastructure. Companies with large fleets are concerned about the costs associated with switching to electric, and such concerns are well-founded since electric semis will often cost about 2.8 times more than their diesel counterparts.
Liquid Hydrogen vs. Hydrogen Gas
While typical electric semi trucks have limited range, liquid hydrogen may be a superior candidate for fuel. The critical characteristic of liquid hydrogen is its energy density. Trucks using liquid hydrogen carry fuel in compact, insulated tanks. By contrast, gaseous hydrogen limits range because less can be stored on board. Because of advancements in high-efficiency insulation, the liquid hydrogen does not require active cooling despite its very low boiling point.
Multiple companies are developing liquid hydrogen-fueled prototypes, including trucking startup Nikola and Daimler Truck.
Daimler has already tested its prototype on the open road, and the range was superior to the typical electric semi. It could travel 1,047 km on one fill of liquid hydrogen. The prototype, the Mercedes-Benz GenH2 Truck, could haul a 40-ton payload. During the test, it emitted zero carbon dioxide.
Hydrogen Infrastructure Complications Remain
These semi-truck prototypes offer exciting fuel alternatives for the trucking industry, but significant obstacles still exist. While the charging infrastructure for EVs powered by lithium-ion batteries is still being developed, liquid hydrogen infrastructure is nonexistent by comparison. Daimler is planning partnerships with large fuel providers like Shell and BP to develop this infrastructure, but these plans are not yet executed.
Nevertheless, the initial prototype testing results are promising, showing that the automotive industry has options for developing fuel source technology supporting the shift toward renewable energy.