Hydrogen Fuel Cells – Could they help break your diesel fuel habit?

Diesel fuel has been our industry’s main power source for years. We love the power it provides while hating its price and the relatively poor mileage we get. There’s a never ending line of additional emissions regulations that mean additional and costly technologies that are required to meet those regulations. Wouldn’t it be great to break that diesel habit and find something else, preferably something that gets around those requirements?

Such a game changer may be just around the corner in the recently unveiled Nikola One, powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. At it’s most basic level, this is an electric truck that generates its own electricity instead of relying solely on a rechargeable battery. What it promises is considerably more complex.

Nikola’s CEO, Trevor Milton, introduced their H2-LI (di-hydrogen-lithium for those of you who have forgotten that periodic table you had to memorize back in your high school science classes) electric power train in Salt Lake City last month. They gave a target of 2020 to bring this technology to market. The terms “game changer” and “disruptive technology” were tossed about by the company’s backers. Is it really and what could it mean for your business?

First of all this technology could get rid of most emissions immediately – instead of sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide, a hydrogen fuel cell’s emissions come out as water. You are going to need somewhere to dump it, but it’s certainly not going to require the EPA clean-up crew needed if you spill any diesel fuel. In one fell swoop we go from being the environmentalist’s whipping boy to near-hero status. There will still be various hazardous items that will need disposal (such as the lithium batteries) but the environmental impact of your operations will drop immediately with this technology. That fact alone makes this an exciting possibility. Think of how much time and money is spent on the various emissions regulations and the current technologies needed to reduce them. No more driver time spent doing a parked regen, no more expensive DPF’s, and in some states, no more money grabbing annual emissions tests. These are all items that should encourage all of us to support further research into this and complementary or competitive technologies.

The trucks themselves are a little funny looking in a sleeper configuration (the day cab looks more like a conventional vehicle). This is because Nikola started by trying to retrofit their new drivetrain on a conventional frame and quickly decided it was better to start from scratch as various items as batteries did not find a good place to be situated.

The Nikola One uses a fully electric, 320 kilowatt drivetrain driven by high density lithium ion batteries. The batteries are supplied by a proton-exchange membrane (PEM) hydrogen fuel cell. These give the vehicle a range of approximately 1200 miles, driving up to 1000 hp and 2000 foot pounds of torque through the drive wheels. Output is through 2 speed gearboxes that will modulate and limit the power based on the needs of the physical conditions, delivering more when climbing hills and conserving power on flat stretches. Regenerative braking will provide up to 85% of the stopping effort while air disc brakes will provide the rest as well as provide braking at low speeds and for parking. The vehicle will weigh in the 17,000 lb range, about 2000 lbs less than a conventional diesel sleeper tractor.

CEO Milton claims the Nikola One will be a very stable vehicle because of a very stiff frame and a low centre of gravity caused by the bulk of the weight being found low in the frame rails (items such as the batteries). The suspension will feature twin air bags at each wheel position on a Meritor fully independent suspension, based on their products developed for military vehicles.

Each vehicle will have a hydrogen tank with a capacity of 100 kg (220 lbs) of fuel. The PEM fuel cell has a 70% efficiency rating for converting hydrogen to electricity, resulting in 23.3 usable kw-h per kilo. Average energy usage of 0.58 miles per kw-h gives the vehicle a potential range of 1350 miles. This works out to 15.4 miles per diesel fuel equivalent – almost double what most current diesel engines get.

From a business model point of view, Nikola proposes a potential game changer- a completely full service lease with everything included, even fuel. Fuel will be available at a projected 364 sites across Canada and the United States and with a 1200 mile effective range there should be a station that matches up with many common lanes. Think about the impact that will have on your cash flow. Budgeting becomes simple – X trucks at $5000 to $7000 per month. Populate that into the spreadsheet and you have taken care of most vehicle operating and capital expenses (sorry, licensing, insurance and permitting will still be required). You have cost certainty and you no longer have to keep tabs on fuel prices and tax rates to try and figure out the most advantageous place for your drivers to fuel. Even more disruptive is the fact that early adopters will get a potentially huge competitive advantage in no longer needing a fuel surcharge. Think about the reaction of your customers if you can go in and say that they will get a completely all-in per mile rate and you can lock that in for an extended period. Basically items like pay rate increases and any additional regulatory burdens are what will drive any cost increases.

You will also no longer need as large a maintenance facility because the lease will include all tractor based costs – even tires. You will still have to maintain your trailers but you will probably need a lower head count to do that. Other than reefer fuel, you can get rid of your fuel tanks or islands – no more environmental cleanup risk from spills or leaks. You will lose some control over when maintenance is performed and there will be some efficiency loss due to having to shunt vehicles to the leasing company’s facility (downtime, paying the driver, etc.). It’s a little early to do a full cost analysis but there this technology has the potential to provide some real benefits to our industry. Please keep in mind that this is still an emerging technology and it has the potential to turn out to be another EGR engine strategy (and we all know how well that turned out) so a little skepticism is useful here. That notwithstanding, hydrogen fuel cells really could live up to the “game changer” and “disruptive” tags that Nikola’s backers are giving it.