The nucleus of the future?

Alternative drive technologies suffer from a common problem: the disproportion between range and charging time of the energy storage device. One solution could be the fuel cell. Nikola Motors is expected to launch the first mass-produced truck on the European market.

The belief that the internal combustion engine will continue to play the role it plays today in the medium and long term is no longer widespread. The consequences of climate change are too obvious, as is the urgent call for vehicles with alternative drive systems. And on a small scale, electric drives have long been part of everyday life, a glance at the success story of the StreetScooter suffices as confirmation. Produced by the company of the same name, a full subsidiary of the Deutsche Post DHL Group, the e-transporter is currently the market leader in the field of electric commercial vehicles in Germany. The range of up to 200 kilometers (124 miles) is completely sufficient for the 2.5-ton truck’s field of application, and the battery is charged overnight.

Stopping for eight to ten hours each time after such a short distance is out of the question for heavy trucks in long-haul transport. According to calculations by engineers at Carnegie Mellon University, a battery with a range of 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) would weigh about 16 tons. The alternative: fuel cells.

Out of water comes energy

Der Nikola Tre soll mit einer Tankfüllung bis zu 1.200 Kilometer weit fahren. [Foto: Nikola Motor Company]
It allegedly can drive up to 1200km with one tank of fuel. [Photo: Nikola Motor Company]
Experts see the future in this energy converter. The electricity generated during the oxidation of hydrogen and oxygen drives the vehicle or recharges the battery almost in real time. The problem is handling: storing hydrogen with the necessary high energy density requires either extreme deep-freezing or high pressure. This requires correspondingly complex filling stations and represents a very special challenge for vehicle manufacturers. One of the pioneers in this field is Nikola Motors from Salt Lake City, USA.

Start with over 1,000 horsepower

Company founder Trevor Milton would have liked to call his company Tesla – but Elon Musk had already secured the last name of the electrical pioneer as a brand. Milton subsequently branded his company after the physicist’s first name: Nikola. The company came into the spotlight at the end of 2016 with the Nikola One, a fuel cell truck with 1,000 horsepower. According to current plans, the One is scheduled to be ready for production in 2021.

Nikola Tre for Europe

The One was developed for the US market, as customers in Europe and Asia have completely different requirements. In contrast to the United States, trucks in Europe and Asia are primarily equipped with underfloor engines, where the drive is located under the cab. This is why Nikola is presenting the Nikola Tre at the Nikola World in-house exhibition in Phoenix, Arizona, in April. The Nikola Tre is the first heavy-duty truck with zero emissions for the European market.

The heavy semi-trailer truck has a range of up to 1,200 kilometers (746 miles). Depending on the configuration, it is expected to deliver 500 to 1,000 horsepower and have a range of 500 to 1,200 kilometers (311 to 746 miles). The energy for the electric motors comes from lithium-ion batteries, which supply a hydrogen-powered fuel cell with electricity. The refueling process will take around 20 minutes at a pressure of 700 bar.

Focused on European requirements

In their development, the Americans are adhering to current size and length restrictions for Europe. With a view to future developments in the field of autonomous driving, Trevor Milton announced that the brakes, steering, fuel cell and batteries are going to be redundantly designed, as this is necessary for true Level 5 autonomy. However, environmentally conscious customers still will have to wait a little bit for the trucks to be ready for production. From 2020, the truck will be tested in Norway and will go into series production from 2022 or 2023.

The Nikola Two presented in the film is designed for the American market. [Source: youtube/Lockt Tube]

Infrastructure? Simply do it yourself

One of the problems in Europe is still its infrastructure; there are far too few hydrogen filling stations. This is reason enough for the manufacturer to take the initiative. Nikola has entered into a cooperation agreement with the Norwegian company Nel Hydrogen to speed up the construction of a supply network. The first hydrogen filling stations in Europe are to open at the start of production of the Tre, and by 2030 “a large part of the European market should be covered”. Despite the challenges, Kim Brady, CFO of Nikola Motors, is optimistic: “We have a lot of work ahead of us but with the right partners, we can do it.

The fuel cell – an old idea

Hydrogen reacts with oxygen in the fuel cell – oxidation occurs. This produces electrical energy for the engine. The only by-product of this chemical reaction is clean steam. The idea is around 180 years old: the Welsh physicist and lawyer Sir William Grove discovered that the electrolysis process, in which water is broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, can also be reversed. As early as 1839, he presented a “galvanic gas battery” that produced electricity by oxidizing hydrogen and oxygen. Fuel cells were used in submarines in the 1950s and in space travel in the 1960s. In the early 1990s, the development of fuel cell- and hydrogen-powered vehicles took off. In the meantime, almost all major automobile manufacturers have introduced their own designs.

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