While looking online for articles on sustainability and the transportation industry, I came across a blog from Courtney Flatt, a journalist at Northwest Public Radio. I found her post, “A Cleaner Way to Cool Refrigerated Trucks,” intriguing. In today’s business environment, where regulations abound, any technology that can cut emissions while still performing its intended function is something to be celebrated.

The clean way to stay cool will come from the use of fuel cells which will replace the current small diesel engine used to keep refrigerated cargo at the right temperatures. Research is now being conducted at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., a U. S. Department of Energy government research laboratory. Although fuel cells are currently used as energy sources in buildings, and to power some mass transit busses and warehouse forklifts, this would be the first time the technology would become part of the commercial transportation industry.

So how do fuel cells work? And what makes them better than the traditional diesel engine? Essentially, fuel cells mix with hydrogen and air to create energy. Since the byproducts are only heat and water, fuel cells produce fewer greenhouse gas and particulate emissions than diesel engines.

According to Kristen Brooks, the PNNL researcher in charge of the project, “A trailer refrigeration unit traditionally is powered by a small diesel engine or electric motor that drives compressors to provide cooling to the cargo. A fuel cell can potentially provide a clean, quiet and efficient alternative by powering the electric motor.” In addition, Brooks also indicated that fuel cells are twice as efficient as the diesel engines currently being used in refrigerated trucks for cargo temperature control.

Field tests are set to begin in 2015 on two projects in two different states, undertaken by two different companies. On the East Coast, Plug Power will work with Carrier Transicold and Air Products to equip trucks making deliveries for a Sysco Corp. food distribution facility on Long Island. On the opposite side of the country, fuel cell manufacturer Nuvera will work with Thermo King to develop the refrigeration unit which will be used on trucks making deliveries to Sysco Co. food distribution center in Riverside, Calif. and to an H-E-B grocery store chain distribution center in San Antonio, Texas. By running each unit at 400 hours of logged run time, researchers will be able to assess the fuel cell’s durability.

There are an estimated 300,000 refrigerated trucks using diesel engines for cooling that are currently on the road. The relatively small fuel cells, which are about the size of a breadbox, will not only be much cleaner than the diesel engines; they’ll also save approximately 10 gallons of fuel per day. It’s worth noting that the trucks themselves will still be diesel powered; the fuel cell replaces only the diesel engine used to cool the refrigerated unit in the trailer. But all big moves need to start with small steps.

Even though most businesses welcome the opportunity to help the environment, cost is still a major issue. As of now, fuel cell technology can be quite expensive; however, the same could have been said a number of years ago about laptops and cell phones. The reality is the more common a product or power source becomes, the less expensive it becomes. Researchers hope this will be the case for fuel cells as well. Current diesel engines for cooling run between $20,000 and $30,000; the goal for the fuel cell cooling unit would be $40,000, a bit more expensive but considering the benefits, hopefully most companies will feel it’s worth the cost.

It’s still a couple of years away, but we’d like to know how you feel now? Is this a technology you could use in your business? Would you use it right away or wait to see how it works for other companies. This could be really big, so we’d like to get a discussion going and get lots of feedback.

 David Beaudry is Director of Logistics Engineering and Consulting for AmeriQuest Transportation Services. He brings 25 years experience to AmeriQuest in surface transportation, logistics engineering, and consulting. His earlier career includes management posts with Ryder System Inc. and National Freight. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Central Connecticut State.