What do you need to know about hydrogen fuel cells? Fuel-cell supplier Loop Energy has been around for nearly 20 years, so HDT Talks Trucking asked Loop President and CEO Ben Nyland. We've got highlights from that interview in this podcast preview.
Loop Energy isn't a name you've heard around the dinner table – yet. Most of its exposure has been in China and Europe, where fuel cell technology and fleet uptake is advancing more rapidly than it is here. Its presence in North America is new, about two years now, but it already has some demonstration projects under way. The most visible of those is a project with Peterbilt and TransPower in California, where Loop provided the range-extender fuel cell to a Model 579 EV.
Nyland defines the company as a fuel-cell engine company, much like Cummins is to the truck manufacturers. The core part of the business is developing hydrogen fuel cells for use in light-, medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles.
"In other parts of the world, like China and Europe, the market is scaling more quickly, and we're moving from demonstration projects to actual commercial rollouts," Nyland says. "But today in North America, the heavy-duty market continues to really be dominated by diesel and natural gas."
Q: Where or in what segments do you see hydrogen fuel cells first rolling out?
A: What we're seeing around the world is that decision is being driven by the market more than anything. China, for example, is the most aggressive market for fuel cells in the world and will remain so for the next decade. The Chinese government has selected 10 cities they call hydrogen cities that they're going to support in a significant way to really build out the hydrogen infrastructure and supply chain. We see a focus in Shanghai and Beijing for example, on what we would call medium duty commercial vehicles – municipal bus fleets and heavier logistics vehicles, so 8- to 10-ton trucks. And that is really driving a certain segment of fuel cell sizes.
In Europe, we're seeing something different. Regulators there are requiring vehicle operators to reduce or eliminate their diesel use. We're seeing the biggest moves coming from smaller commercial vehicles, logistics vehicles in the three-and-a-half to seven- or eight-ton size, such as the Volkswagen e-Crafter and the Daimler Sprinter van. While those fleets have been quite aggressive over the last few years in evaluating battery-electric solutions, they are coming to the conclusion that in order to deploy across the entire fleet, they actually need a hybrid fuel-cell/battery solution [range extender].
In California, which is really the only meaningful zero-emission market in North America at this stage, it's too early to tell. There have been pilot projects across different sizes of vehicles. There's a lot of momentum in the smaller vehicles, the Rivians of the world, and Lightning eMotors (formerly Lightning Systems), for example. Our project in California is heavy-duty [a joint development with Transpower of a Peterbilt 579 EV range extender], and there's a clear cut advantage in heavy-duty for fuel cells. So, I would expect that we'll see the first real traction in North America in that heavy-duty class 8 market, and that will likely start in urban markets like the drayage market.
Q: What questions should fleets be asking about hydrogen fuel cells?
A: Well, there's probably too many to answer here, but off the top of my head the first question should be what's the duty cycle for my vehicles? Do they know how far do they need to travel? How much cargo do they need to haul? And do they want different vehicles different vehicle in the fleet to deal with different duty cycles? Many operators prefer one type of vehicle so they can learn how to maintain it, so there's no mystery about it.
They need to pick a vehicle that can manage their most difficult run, the longest run with the heaviest cargo. And that is typically pushes operators towards a fuel cell or fuel cell hybrid with a battery.
The second thing that's important is the size of the fleet. When deploying one or two vehicles, battery electric is much simpler to do because you probably already have the infrastructure in place. You can plug them in and charge them overnight. You can satisfy that with fairly minimal upgrades to existing infrastructure. The opposite is true for fuel cells. If you're only deploying one or two vehicles, it can be a high bar to deploy because there may not be fuel in the area. And hydrogen can be very expensive to move in small quantities. But as you scale the fleet, once you get to fleet sizes of 50 or 100, or maybe even just 20, then you start running into some very significant electrical challenges. You may have to upgrade transmission infrastructure to the facility because of the electrical draw of these vehicles. Whereas when you get into those larger fleets, it becomes much easier to deploy hydrogen vehicles. And the cost effectiveness of hydrogen improves dramatically with volume. The ease and the economics of deployment, increases dramatically for fuel cells over batteries as the fleet size increases.
Q: We are hearing about two different types of Class 8 fuel cell trucks, the fuel-cell-dominant version and the range extender. Can you define the difference?
A: Fuel cells are an energy generation source. You can think of it as a sort of battery. When you have a fuel cell and a battery bank, the primary purpose of the fuel cell system is to recharge the batteries. It's the batteries that are really driving the vehicle and we call this configuration a range extender.
That sort of deployment lends itself extremely well to an urban freight environment, like drayage or a logistics vehicle, where speeds are fairly low and there's lots of stop and go driving and lots of opportunity for regenerative braking. What you'd see in that environment is a battery pack that's sized to take care of peak acceleration and peak power requirements. The fuel cell would be sized to manage the average power requirement for the vehicle, which can be quite low over time, because of the regenerative braking opportunities.
The fuel cell for a drayage truck in an urban environment, might need to be only 50 to 70 kilowatts because the batteries play a more dominant role with all the starting and stopping.
When we look at something like a long-haul truck, and this would be the type of market that Nikola is going after, it makes more sense to go to what we call a fuel-cell-dominant powertrain where the fuel cell is actually providing most of the power and the battery just stores the regenerative braking energy and supports acceleration.
When sizing a fuel cell for a long-haul heavy-duty truck, you need to supply at least 150 kilowatts of power, because that's what a class 8 vehicle requires at highway speed. But you actually need more, like maybe 200 or 250 kilowatts of power to provide the necessary acceleration.
So, in a range extended vehicle, there are more batteries and that adds to the weight of the vehicle. But it also provides access to less expensive operating and better regenerative braking opportunities. The difference, really, is that you're trading off the size of the battery bank against the size of the fuel cell. Combining batteries and fuel cells also gives the operators the ability to make those trade-offs based on their intended applications.
Q: Various brands of diesel engine all do essentially the same thing, but they accomplish it in slightly different ways. What about fuel cells? Are there differences between different suppliers?
A: Absolutely. Different diesel engine companies have chosen different performance metrics to compete on. It might be low-end torque, it might be high-end efficiency, and then they accomplish those differences through different cylinder sizes, different compression ratios, different materials that they use in the engine. All those same factors apply in slightly different ways to fuel cells.
We can control the pressures at which the gases enter the fuel cell, and depending on how you change the pressure, it changes the characteristics of the fuel cell -- whether it's efficiency or power output. And each fuel cell company has its own secret sauce or technology. At Loop, we have a technology suite that we refer to as E-flow. And e flow is a significant competitive differentiator. It's one of the reasons that Cummins made the investment in Loop, and it gives us advantages in the marketplace that allow us to deliver better fuel efficiency and a smaller package. We can pull some of those levers to differentiate ourselves from Ballard or Bosch and other competitors in the marketplace.
Q: People have expressed concern about operating battery-electric vehicles in northern climates where it gets really cold in the winter. Will fuel cells have those same temperature-related issues?
A: No. There is no performance impact in terms of efficiency on a fuel cell vehicle based on temperature. And we see this fact driving a number of commercial markets, including buses, where you get sort of a double whammy on performance in a winter. On an electric transit bus, for example, not only do you see a reduction in the performance of the batteries, you also need to run heaters, which typically are electric heaters, so the efficiency and range of a municipal bus drops dramatically over the winter months in a place like Edmonton, Winnipeg or New York City. In any city where you see temperatures below zero over the winter, fuel cells have a dramatic performance advantage over batteries.