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My Money’s on Hydrogen: After decades of talk, the fuel choice is close

Posted: August 13, 2018 by Rolf Lockwood

Plug-in electric trucks are all the rage these days, mostly medium-duty machines, but there’s even a functional prototype logging truck that’s not only electric but fully autonomous as well. Swedish tech start-up Einride recently unveiled its T-log truck that incorporates “some off-road capabilities and is designed to navigate forest roads,” as the company describes it. It’s a mighty interesting idea, but carrying capacity is just 32,000 lb.

And then, of course, there’s the Tesla Semi. Or is there? It may or may not see the light of day.

A better bet to my mind, for highway hauling and pretty much any other transportation application in the longer term, is the hydrogen fuel cell. I know, I know, people have been saying that for ages, and I first wrote about the technology almost 40 years ago. It hasn’t arrived yet, but I think it’s pretty close.

Hydrogen may start to become a serious factor in our driving lives sooner than we think, in both cars and trucks. Nikola Motor Company’s fuel-cell trucks aside, passenger cars are leading the way here. Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda all have commercially available fuel-cell models; Daimler is hard at it in cars and vans; and fuel-cell growth in the transportation sector nearly tripled last year. There were nearly 3,500 fuel-cell electric cars on the road in the U.S., primarily in California, through the end of 2017.

At that point there were 40 retail hydrogen stations and nine non-retail stations in the U.S., but 45 (plus 11 private fleet facilities) in Germany alone. As many as 400 service stations are planned there by 2023 as part of the H2 Mobility Joint Venture run by Daimler, Linde, Shell, Total, and others. Europe has a clear lead over North America, not least because the German government very actively supports infrastructure development. But Japan is more advanced still, with 91 public outlets.

Now, enter Nikola. And it’s really on the move, according to a press release last month. Targeting US$200 million in investment funds, Nikola CEO Trevor Milton announced that more than $100 million had already been raised and funded in August.

He added, “So far this year we have kicked off plans to build the largest hydrogen network in the world with Nel, secured a massive 800-truck order commitment from Anheuser-Busch, developed the most energy-dense battery system on the market with almost 400 watt hours per liter, engineered a 240-kW fuel cell, kicked off electric vehicle stability controls and electric ABS with Wabco, designed a thermo-management and HVAC system with Mahle, finalized the most advanced Class-8 independent suspension on the market with Meritor, relocated our company to Arizona to build our new 150,000-sq.-ft. headquarters, and now closed on $100 million.”

Nel ASA may be the most important element. Since its foundation in 1927, the Norwegian company has been developing hydrogen plants, so Nikola has partnered with a seriously experienced outfit. Its capabilities cover the entire value chain, from hydrogen production technologies to manufacturing hydrogen fueling stations, providing all fuel-cell electric vehicles with what it claims to be “the same fast fueling and long range as conventional vehicles today.”

By 2028, Nikola is planning on having more than 700 Nel-built hydrogen stations across the U.S. and Canada. The first 14 stations will be up and running by 2021, we’re promised.

Give these guys credit. They’re really pioneering hydrogen-electric renewable technology. With a range of between 800 and 1,900 km and a refill time within 20 minutes, Nikola trucks will be in fleets beginning in 2020 and in full production by 2021, the company says. It adds that it has nearly $11 billion in pre-order reservations.

Nikola is going to be a force, I predict.

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