Sustainability / Reading time: ~ 4 Min.

Hydrogen Truck: Perspectives and Challenges for Zero Emission Road Freight

The transportation sector is still dependent on fossil fuels and is responsible for more than 15 percent of global CO2 emissions. In the long term, fuel cell vehicles powered by green hydrogen could be a sustainable solution for long-distance transport, as the by-products of hydrogen-powered engines are not exhaust gases, but only heat and water. How realistic is the widespread introduction of hydrogen trucks?

Hydrogen Powered Truck – Sustainable Future in Long-Haul Transport?

The earth’s supply of hydrogen is virtually unlimited. At the same time, it can be used for a variety of energy carrier and storage solutions, whether in industrial production or in power plants. Thus, it is no wonder that hydrogen technology is considered to be an environmentally friendly key technology of the future. In propulsion technology, hydrogen is a potential replacement of fossil fuels and so may play an important role in the decarbonisation of road freight.

Along with battery-powered electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells are a significant technological alternative for road freight, which is still predominantly diesel-powered today. While battery-electric drives are increasingly being used for deliveries with smaller trucks and within a limited delivery radius, the situation is different for heavy trucks that cover several hundred kilometers a day. Here, battery technology is still reaching its limits in terms of storage capacity, battery weight, and charging speed. The hydrogen-powered fuel cell offers significant advantages in long-distance transportation.

Refueling of Hydrogen Trucks and Fuel Consumption

This is because hydrogen has a relatively high energy density, which means that hydrogen trucks can travel long distances: 800 to 1000 kilometers without stopping to refuel are possible, although the actual capacity and consumption obviously depends on the particular engine and truck model. Hydrogen trucks could therefore become an excellent alternative to diesel for long-haul transport – especially as fuel cell trucks can be refueled almost as quickly as diesel trucks. Depending on the model, refueling is sometimes possible in 10 to 15 minutes.

Possible Limitation of Hydrogen Truck Capacity

Hydrogen must be compressed or liquefied and then stored in appropriate hydrogen tanks inside the vehicle. These tanks are usually placed behind the cab, which might increase the length of the front part of the truck. In some countries, there are legal regulations concerning the overall length of trucks. If this is the case, the increase in length may have to be compensated for by making the cargo area shorter. This reduces the load capacity of hydrogen-powered trucks.

Sustainability of Hydrogen: It All Depends on the Production

Already today, the industry produces and consumes hydrogen on a large scale, albeit primarily based on fossil resources. Sustainably produced green hydrogen is still a rare commodity.

The technique for producing green hydrogen is water electrolysis using renewable electricity. During electrolysis, water (H2O) is cleaved into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2). The hydrogen obtained through electrolysis can be stored and redistributed for use in industry or transport.

Other “hydrogen colors“ are:

  • Grey hydrogen is generated from fossil natural gas through a process called “steam reforming”. Around 10 tons of CO2 are released per ton of produced hydrogen.
  • Blue hydrogen is grey hydrogen, but the carbon generated is captured and stored underground.
  • Orange hydrogen is produced from biomass, waste, or residual materials and is considered emission neutral.
  • Turquoise hydrogen is the product of the cleavage of methane. Instead of CO2, fixed carbon is generated that does not leak into the atmosphere. The process is still under development.

Hydrogen Truck Technology: How the Fuel Cell Engine Works

Hydrogen-powered vehicles can be imagined as electric vehicles that generate their own electricity. The core of a hydrogen drive is the fuel cell.

A hydrogen vehicle refuels with compressed hydrogen. Hydrogen is pumped into the fuel cell from the high-pressure tank. The fuel cell consists of two electrodes (a negatively charged anode and a positively charged cathode), a catalyst, and a membrane. At the anode, hydrogen molecules are split into hydrogen ions (protons) and electrons.

The electrical energy from the electrons powers the vehicle’s engine. Protons and electrons fuse again at the cathode of the fuel cell and, in combination with oxygen, are turned into water: Apart from heat, water is the only by-product resulting from this form of energy generation, which is why hydrogen trucks do not produce any direct exhaust emissions.

Total Energy Balance

Fuel cells are less energy-efficient than battery drives. A lot of energy is lost during electricity-based hydrogen production via electrolysis and the following conversion of hydrogen into electricity in the fuel cell. All in all, more energy is required to operate a hydrogen-powered truck than a battery-powered one.

Energy from Hydrogen: No 20th or 21st Century Idea

Simply ingenious or ingeniously simple? – The basic principle of fuel cell technology was already discovered in the first half of the 19th century and further developed in the 20th century. Buses with fuel cells have been on the road in some city centers since the 1990s. Today, the technology is being extensively tested under real conditions in road freight – including by DHL Freight.

Hydrogen Technology at DHL Freight

DHL Freight intends to initiate the transition to hydrogen drives by 2030 at the latest. Until then, we are working with partners to develop industry standards for the use of hydrogen solutions, and we are participating in pilot projects.

DHL Freight‘s hydrogen projects include:

  • Paul Hydrogen Power-Truck (PH2P® Truck): As part of a one-year pilot, a hydrogen truck has been in operation in distribution and scheduled transport at DHL Freight’s Cologne site since February 2024. The 15.6-ton PH2P® is the first medium duty truck with hydrogen fuel cells that is ready for series production.
  • HyCET (Hydrogen Combustion Engine Trucks): The HyCet project consortium, in addition to DHL Freight, consists of vehicle and drive producers as well as energy companies. Two 18-ton and two 40-ton trucks with hydrogen combustion engines are being developed and tested. HyCET is also addressing the infrastructure required for the widespread use of hydrogen trucks.

Hydrogen in Road Freight – the Status Quo

Many experts regard hydrogen as the energy source of the future. However, many questions relating to hydrogen have not yet been finally clarified – from climate-neutral production and large-scale storage to the transportation and refuelling infrastructure. For this reason, and even though hydrogen trucks are in the news regularly, hydrogen can only play a pivotal role in long-term road freight transport concepts.

Research must continue to improve the efficiency of fuel cells. To develop high-performance hydrogen trucks, most manufacturers are cooperating with hydrogen technology specialists.

Furthermore, there are two fundamental problems: The total operating costs of hydrogen trucks are still too high to compete economically with conventional vehicles and the necessary refueling infrastructure is lacking. If hydrogen filling stations are already in place, most of them are only designed for cars. A truck refueling infrastructure still needs to be developed. It is crucial that the development of vehicle technology and infrastructure is driven forward in a coordinated manner. Without targeted political support for hydrogen trucks and the respective infrastructure, the introduction of hydrogen trucks to the market will not succeed.

What Is Needed to Help Hydrogen Technology Achieve a Breakthrough

In summary, there are three pillars that are the prerequisite for the sustained success of hydrogen-powered trucks:

  • Market maturity and cost-effectiveness of a wide range of vehicles
  • Incentives for companies to buy and consumer acceptance
  • Adequate hydrogen distribution and refueling infrastructure
Conclusion

Niche or Mass Market? The Next Years Are Crucial

At DHL Freight, we see hydrogen technology as a chance to achieve our sustainability goals. The entire DHL Group aims to reduce its carbon footprint by 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2019 and to reduce all logistics-related emissions to net zero by 2050. For long-distance transport with heavy trucks, the hydrogen fuel cell offers significant advantages over battery electric drives in terms of range and refueling speed.

However, the success of hydrogen drives requires a joint effort by the companies that develop the technology and the vehicles, and those that deploy them – such as DHL Freight. Politicians are also called upon to provide the framework conditions and the necessary infrastructure.

Last but not least: there must be enough green hydrogen available. If the emissions are no longer generated during the drive, but during hydrogen production, nothing is achieved. Only zero-emission hydrogen will result in zero-emission vehicles. This requires a reinforcement of energy production from renewable sources and the construction of many electrolyzers.

At DHL Freight, we are driving development with our commitment to hydrogen projects – for sustainable logistics of the future.

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