If you are the type that travels long distances frequently, you must have come across large trucks conveying what may be a large cargo of goods. But have you ever wondered how these trucks run and what makes them “tick”? Driving these trucks oftentimes requires extra training and part of that training includes knowing all you possibly can about the truck you want to drive. If you are the inquisitive type like me, then this is just for you.
Fuel cell vehicles are the future
In this article, we will be shedding light on the fuel cell for long haul commercial vehicles and how it functions to help with the transport of cargo from place to place. The goal here is to “uncomplicate” things so that whether as an inquisitive person, an aspiring truck driver or as a truck owner, you can understand and gain insight into the importance of a fuel cell in that your long haul commercial vehicle.
1. What is a fuel cell?
In simple English, a fuel cell converts chemical energy into electrical energy. The chemical here is the Hydrogen converted to electricity by several reactions. A fuel cell vehicle is one that uses fuel cells that are powered by “hydrogen” rather than the typical batteries with metals and their ions that power engines and move vehicles from one place to the other. Fuel cells have long been in existence and can be traced to the time of its first inventor in 1838, Sir William Grove.
An American company, UTC Power, later went on to be the first to manufacture the fuel cell in commercial quantity for use as a co-generation power plant in hospitals, universities and large buildings.
1.1. Types of fuel cells
The Polymer Electrolyte Membrane or Proton Exchange Membrane is the most commonly used type of fuel cell in cars and trucks, including large haul commercial vehicles, but there are other types of fuel cells. Some of which include:
- Alkaline fuel cells
- Phosphoric Acid fuel cells
- Solid Oxide fuel cells
- Molten Carbonate fuel cells
- Reversible fuel cells
There are several techniques that various fuel cell manufacturers adopt in designing the Polymer Electrolyte Membrane fuel cell, but generally, the fuel cell operation is the same in all the various designs of the Polymer Electrolyte fuel cells.
1.2. How do fuel cells work?
The fuel cell operation is very simple; fuel cells are made up of the anode (where the hydrogen enters), cathode (where oxygen enters) and electrolyte. The hydrogen, which is fed from a fuelling tank mixes with oxygen with the help of electrolytes. This then ensures the passage of the right amount of ions, with platinum working as a catalyst in the chemical reaction. The end products of this combination of hydrogen and oxygen are electrons, which are converted to electricity for powering the car. Water(H2O) is also produced and passed out through the truck’s exhaust.
Further clarification on fuel cells is provided in the video below:
Fuel cells are designed differently by various fuel cell manufacturers, but the basic essence remains the combination of hydrogen and oxygen by the fuel cell to produce electricity. The fuel cell is very different from a normal electric battery, in that, unlike the electric batteries, the fuel cell does not burn hydrogen but combines it with oxygen to produce the needed electricity for movement.
The relatively smaller size and the capability to go longer distances - because they can store more hydrogen and hardly ever run down -gives the fuel cell an edge over electric car batteries.
A more viable option for power
As a more environmentally-friendly and more efficient means of generating power, particularly in cars, the fuel cell provides a more viable option. But the fuel cell in all its perfection is not without its flaws. Platinum which serves as a catalyst required by the fuel cells in mixing the oxygen with hydrogen can be quite difficult and expensive to get.
1.3. Are there challenges with using the fuel cell?
Hydrogen is one element that is available everywhere but not in the purest form. It, therefore, requires extra processes to convert it. This will naturally increase its cost of production and make it more expensive. The difficulty in transporting and storing hydrogen presents a major problem for fuel cells. Hydrogen is often gotten in gaseous form and has stored in liquified form or placed under pressurized conditions. These processes also take up extra energy which may or not be renewable.
There is also the problem of infrastructure in terms of the amount of available hydrogen refueling stations available. Figures at the end of 2019 put the number of hydrogen refueling stations in the United States of America at 40 stations and those in Germany at 80. You can then imagine how many there could be in countries like Nigeria. However, there is an ongoing surge in investment as Shell, in collaboration with Toyota, plans to plunk $11.4 million (₦4.3 billion) in a bid to have 100 stations in California by 2024.
BMW has also collaborated with hydrogen manufacturers in Germany to attain the goal of 130 stations by 2022 and 400 by 2025.
2. Why should we install fuel cell for long haul commercial vehicles?
There are several reasons why we think you should install a fuel cell in your long haul commercial vehicle and they include:
2.1 Renewable source of energy
Perhaps the most important reason for all these is the renewable nature of hydrogen. In case you don't get it, that means you get durable batteries and your cost of vehicle maintenance is reduced. The fuel cells don’t burn up hydrogen, unlike most combustion engines and electric batteries.
2.2 Fuel efficiency
Fuel efficiency is important in a car. Of course, you may not have the advantage of owning one of the most fuel-efficient cars in Nigeria. One plus you get with fuel cells is that it is also fuel-efficient when compared to diesel or petrol. Hydrogen has a density of 120 megajoules per kilogram (MJ/kg) which is equal to its energy density of 33.6kWh, making it, at the very least, two times more efficient than diesel or gasoline.
2.3 Leverage for grants and governmental favours
The other advantage of using fuel cells in your long haul commercial vehicle is the accumulation of social capital it gives your business. With the emission of water instead of smoke, the fuel cells offer an environmentally-friendly truck, which businesses can leverage in terms of getting recognition and grants from the government.
Your business also gets to stay one step ahead of the eco-curve. Even more so, with the commitment of the European Union to end diesel and petrol engines by 2030, an investment in greener sources of energy and more efficient trucks is no doubt a smart long-term business decision.
Major car manufacturers are currently dabbling into the production of large trucks with fuel cells. Toyota is one major car manufacturer that is taking steps to develop trucks that make use of fuel cells by teaming up with its subsidiary, Hino Motors Limited. With Nikla Motors raising about $3 billion (₦1 Zillion) in investment, the race for the development of hydrogen fuel cell-powered truck is well and truly on.
Several brands are coming together to create the perfect zero-emission vehicle!
The fuel cells have also been criticized for being highly flammable, but so are the regular car batteries. Hydrogen is regarded as the lightest of all the elements and so dissipates quickly or burns faster than petrol, diesel, or lithium batteries. One noticeable thing is that as technology advances, there is a very high tendency for the cost of production of fuel cells to further reduce, making it more available for large scale production.
As the world shifts gears towards a cleaner, more efficient, and environment-friendly alternative means of generating and dispensing energy, the fuel cell for long haul commercial vehicles does present itself as a suitable and viable choice to take over.