With the addition of a new FleetCare facility earlier this year and the current expansion of a fuel system assembly plant, Hexagon Agility is growing its capabilities in North Carolina and preparing for what company leaders see as the coming growth of renewable natural gas in the trucking industry.
Hexagon Agility, a business of Hexagon Composites, reports that in the first half of 2023, its solutions kept more than 1.35 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents from being released into the atmosphere.
The parent company was first listed on the stock exchange in Norway in 2000 but has roots dating back to the 1960s. Today it is the world’s largest producer of composite fuel cylinders, according to Hexagon Agility CEO Hans Peter Havdal, who also serves as chief operating officer for Hexagon Composites. He said the company’s role overall is to support the transition to more sustainable transport and storage solutions.
In addition to making cylinders for natural gas and hydrogen, the company also manages distribution of the lower-emissions fuels. Worldwide, Hexagon fields 1,800 modules, meaning a trailer containing multiple large cylinders that can deliver fuel basically as a “mobile pipeline.” The trailer can be dropped at a location to serve as a fueling station, for days or even weeks.
Despite being based in Europe, Hexagon Composites' largest presence (53% of the company) is right here in North America, with facilities in Lincoln, Nebraska; Westminster, Maryland; Ontario, California; Fontana, California; Kelowna, Canada; and Salisbury, North Carolina.
Energy Density Challenges
As fuel gets cleaner, the energy density gets lower. Diesel is packed full of energy, so it has a high energy density. Natural gas fuels, on the other hand, like CNG or RNG, have less energy density, so basically more fuel has to be packed into the tanks.
“The energy density that you can get [from] any cubic meter of diesel is significantly higher than methane. And then we go from methane to hydrogen, it reduces even more, and electric even more,” points out Eric Bippus, executive vice president, sales and system development, Hexagon Agility. “So, packaging a maximum amount of clean fuel in a given space is really, really important. That's why renewable natural gas is really taking off right now.”
Havdal points to one key advantage of the cylinders the company makes — they are lightweight. They have a polymer lining inside that is covered with carbon fiber and resin. They are far lighter than if they were made from steel.
“So, with the light cylinder we can carry more gas on board and increase the range of the vehicle,” he explains.
CNG/RNG HD Trucks
Hexagon Agility provides solutions for fuels like CNG and RNG by producing tanks and fuel systems that can power vehicles, without greatly increasing weight and thereby losing payload capacity.
Three segments served by Hexagon Agility, now with 70,000 vehicles on the road, are:
- Heavy-duty trucks
- Refuse trucks
- Transit buses
Bippus says Hexagon Agility has about an 80% share across all three of those segments, giving the company a number one market position in North America for heavy-duty trucks.
There are about 330,000 new heavy-duty trucks entering service each year in North America, he says; only about 2% are powered by CNG. But he expects that percentage to start climbing with Cummins’ launch of its 15-liter natural gas engine, the X15N.
“We see 2% going to 5%, 10%, 15%. We're in a prime position right now. We have 900 employees, 10 locations worldwide,” Bippus adds.
Growth of RNG
Renewable natural gas is rapidly gaining popularity, according to Bippus, and he explains there are two methods of storing the methane molecule.
In the U.S., the common way is to compress the gas to 250 bar/3,600 psi. Storing the gas at that pressure increases the energy density.
A second option is to store it cryogenically in a liquid natural gas (LNG) tank. Currently that method is more common in Europe than in North America. However, in the coming months, there will start to be more LNG trucks on the road in the U.S., he says.
“The beauty of LNG is cryogenically you can store even higher energy because of the way the fuel is stored."
Whether natural gas is geologically based and comes from the ground, or it is captured from livestock manure, crop waste, landfill waste, or other organics for RNG, it is still the same methane molecule that needs to be collected and stored.
What makes RNG promising for the environment is the negative carbon footprint when methane is captured and kept from being released into the atmosphere.
Bippus says there are different opinions to the extent of methane’s environmental impact, but some research reports that methane has 25 to 30 times the amount of carbon compared to CO2 when released into the atmosphere.
Well-to-Wheel CO2 Emissions
Bippus cites comparisons generated by the California Air Resources Board that take a look at an internal combustion engine running on methane compared to diesel, and even hydrogen and electric engines. The numbers take into consideration the carbon and climate impact involved in the production of the fuels as well.
Depending on the biomass source that produces RNG, it can have an 80% to 200% reduction in CO2-equivalents, he says.
The CO2-equivalent emissions are:
- ICE Diesel — 663 g/km7
- ICE Methane (CNG) — 543 g/km7
- ICE RNG (excluding manure) — 147 g/km7
- ICE RNG (by manure) — negative 745 g/km7
- FCEV (H2 from natural gas) — 504 g/km7
- FCEV (green hydrogen) — 10 g/km7
- BEV (European grid) — 246 g/km7
- BEV (brown coal electricity) — 1,069 g/km7
- BEV (wind/solar electricity) — 10 g/km7
While traditional fossil fuels and even electric models all have CO2-equivalent impacts, battery-electric vehicles using power from wind and solar and hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles using green hydrogen have significantly less impact. However, RNG from manure is the sole fuel source that researchers have found to have a negative CO2 impact. And that impact seems sizeable.
“We believe today for the heavy-duty segment renewable natural gas is the best solution as an alternative to these,” adds Bippus.
He suggests that in order to convert to lower-emissions options, heavy-duty fleets must be able to do so without what he calls massive government incentives while still maintaining a solid return on investment that makes sense for them.
One of the greatest challenges is infrastructure, in particular the electric grid in the case of battery-electric vehicles, and hydrogen production and distribution when it comes to hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.
But for CNG, RNG, and even hydrogen, Hexagon Agility already has a distribution plan. Its modules can be hauled to a location and dropped to serve as a mobile pipeline.
“We package energy at Hexagon Group; could be electrons, could be hydrogen, could be the methane molecule, and we efficiently deliver that energy to a method of propulsion, which could be an internal combustion engine running on natural gas, could be a fuel cell, or could be a pure electric motor,” Bippus says.
CNG/RNG Aftermarket Service
With two FleetCare locations, one in Fontana, California, and the other in Salisbury, North Carolina, Hexagon Agility not only install fuel systems and fuel tanks on medium- and heavy-duty trucks and transit buses, but it also provides training, mobile service, and more.
FleetCare services Hexagon Agility’s high-pressure fuel systems, stopping at the low-pressure regulator in heavy-duty vehicles. With medium-duty vehicles, FleetCare services up through the fuel injectors.
“We've of course always had aftermarket service on our mind, but with the growth in the business and the 15-liter onslaught, we knew that we needed to double down and really focus on it as a business, if you will, within the business,” explains Brad Garner, senior vice president, FleetCare.
FleetCare provides four key service areas, which are:
- Technical Support Center
- Technical Training Academy
- Mobile Service
- Genuine Parts
The Technical Support Center prioritizes vehicle uptime; provides live hotline support with technical experts exclusive to clean fuel vehicles; offers a support line for fleets, dealers, OEMs, and end-user customers; plus has a web-based customer portal option.
The Technical Training Academy delivers instruction to meet specific maintenance and driver needs and a comprehensive program providing introductory to advanced courses. There is onsite as well as in-person training available, but the online training portal also offers 24/7 learning options.
The mobile service arm of FleetCare fields specialists that are strategically located to support fleets and can provide services such as:
- Onsite diagnostic troubleshooting
- In-house repairs and cylinder inspections
- Post accident inspections
- Field replacement of systems
- Rapid deployment to repair vehicles in the field
- 24/7 technician availability
“So anytime the (fuel) system leaves one of our factories and it goes out into the wild, that becomes FleetCare’s area of responsibility,” Garner explains. “Let's make sure that customer really has maintenance and service on par with diesel.”
Hexagon Agility’s parts service stocks OEM quality parts with more than 5,100 parts in stock. Parts ship from one of two warehouses. The one in Salisbury services the East Coast while the Fontana warehouse fills the needs of the West Coast market.
A large part of the FleetCare facility in Salisbury, which opened in June of this year, is dedicated to the installation of natural gas fuel systems, which previously was done at a nearby Hexagon Agility manufacturing facility. The fuel systems and lines arrive from the nearby production center and the cylinders come in from the Lincoln, Nebraska, plant where they are produced.
Of the 88-person FleetCare staff in Salisbury, 39 are focused on installation.
Vehicles arrive directly from OEMs and FleetCare is already working with Freightliner, Mack, Kenworth, Daimler, Peterbilt, and Volvo. Fleets they are working with already include FedEx, UPS, Penske, and Anheuser-Busch.
Hexagon Agility Assembly
Nearby in Salisbury, Hexagon Agility has a fuel system assembly facility, which is currently in expansion mode.
The facility does not manufacture cylinders, but it does everything else needed to assemble fuel systems, with many key components made in house.
“We take raw flat sheet metal, extruded metal, we’ll cut it, size it, bend it, break it, shape it, curve it, we’ll make covers, all of that in our fabrication shop," explains Don Ruddy, vice president of operations for the Salisbury production facility. "We’ll then paint it, and we can dry coat. So, we have some versatility in there. All of all those items are processed and painted here in the facility. Then we make all the tubing,”
The facility does not make some components, such as regulators and gauges.
“We bring all those components together, assemble them into a fully encased system. It's pressure tested and ready to go to either our on-site install or go to an OEM for installation by them,” he explains.
For now, the cylinders are produced in Lincoln, Nebraska. But in a little more than a year, the Salisbury facility will start making its own, beginning with a 27-inch by 81-inch cylinder used in the larger fuel systems.
The cylinder production will be housed in a 113,000-square-foot building addition that will be completed in January 2024, with production of the first cylinder starting in January 2025.