You might’ve not heard of Nicolas Joseph Cugnot, but he built the first automobile engine using a steam engine in 1769. More than one century after, in 1886, Karl Benz built the first automobile engine utilizing a combustion engine.
134 years have passed since the combustion engine’s invention, and we have new technology at the cusp of blooming; electric engines. Battery cells are the mainstream fuel of electric engines. But humankind’s brilliancy yields yet another impressive revolutionary technology; hydrogen cells. It’s especially promising for the trucking industry.
Great minds don’t produce great answers; they produce great questions – answers are a mere byproduct. So, why would you want your truck to be powered by hydrogen?
For starters, hydrogen has a significantly higher specific energy of 40KwH/kg. Almost triple the amount of gasoline’s specific energy, and it is 236 times higher than the lithium-ion battery’s specific energy.
Secondly, hydrogen is number one in atomic numbers, top left corner of the periodic table, making hydrogen the lightest element. Weight is a huge factor in the trucking industry, so having the lightest element as fuel makes sense.
Lastly, the emission of a combustible engine is carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide is bad for humans, plants, the ozone layer, the earth, everything. The emission of a hydrogen fuel cell engine is water– the most essential substance for all life on earth.
How Hydrogen Cell Engines Work
Hydrogen fuel cells use the Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) machine. Electricity flows through the cathode and anode, and the PEM creates hydrogen molecules. This method is 20% more efficient than the traditional electrolysis process.
The freshly-made hydrogen gas is compressed, then stored in a specialized tank. Stored hydrogen gets transported inside the fuel tank of a truck. The next stop is the PEM machine, where electrons are extracted from the hydrogen. Electrons go straight into the converter. The converter converts direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC).
The electricity flows to the power control system to power sensors and other apparatuses that support the truck’s function. Some of the electricity also goes to the battery as a back-up source of energy. Finally, electricity travels into the heart of the vehicle itself, the AC electric motor. Electricity turns into motion, and then the motor shaft delivers the motion straight to the wheels and tires. And you’re off to start your journey!
Hydrogen Fuel for Future Trucks
Trucks are the backbone of our economy. That’s why the stakes are incredibly high to find an alternate energy source. An increase in efficiency converts to a considerable amount of time saved and a billion dollars of profit.
The most important part about a truck is its cargo. If your truck can carry more cargo, then you get more money. But cargo is the heaviest part of the truck. More weight equals more power needed to pull, stronger brakes, and more fuel, which adds its weight. It’s the never-ending weight paradox.
The hydrogen fuel cell engine plays an essential role in shearing away a chunk of the truck’s weight. Since hydrogen is lightweight, it only takes a few dozen kilograms to cover the truck’s journey sufficiently. Freeing weight for the truck’s precious cargo.
During the process of converting hydrogen into electricity, the byproduct of that chemical reaction is water, compared to combustion engines, which emit massive carbon emissions. Couple emission problems with an 80% uptime of trucks (highest of all road vehicles) and hydrogen fuel cells could ensure the air around trucks is clean and breathable.
Fossil Fuel Reliance
Fossil fuel is a finite resource, and we do not know when that resource will be depleted. If that happens while trucks still rely on gasoline, then we’d witness an economic crash of epic proportions watching society grind to a halt.
What Skeptics Say About Hydrogen Fuel Cells
The hydrogen fuel cell is not the holy grail of a vehicle engine. It still has glaring flaws, which are currently being worked on to fix.
Energy cannot be created nor destroyed. Hydrogen has so much energy. Therefore we need to put a lot of energy into converting water into hydrogen. Those energies are mainly heat and electricity, but the sheer scale is enough to make companies’ wallets scream.
Hydrogen refueling station needs to be built around the country to ensure trucks have access to refuel. Building these stations is expensive and time-consuming since you have to build the PEM machines, compressor systems, and storage tanks.
We are at the cusp of a breakthrough in vehicle engine technology. The hydrogen fuel cell is efficient, lightweight, and produces zero-emission. It’s a perfect candidate for the truck industry. Lightweight fuel provides more allowance for cargo weight, less reliance on fossil fuel builds a more robust economy, and zero-emission keeps the air clean and breathable. However, expensive startup costs and infrastructure are still the main hurdles.