With Nikola launching its first hydrogen fuel cell trucks in just a few years, and passenger car...

With Nikola launching its first hydrogen fuel cell trucks in just a few years, and passenger car companies testing hydrogen-fueled models around the world, hydrogen may become a serious factor sooner than we think. 

Photo courtesy Nikola Motors

She swore at me, my friend did, when I told her I was writing this column about hydrogen fuel cells. I knew she would, because she runs a small fleet of tank and pumper trucks in the oil fields of both Texas and Alberta. Makes good money in the process, too.

Hydrogen, in her mind, threatens that livelihood, because it signals the end of fossil fuels… sort of. The reality is that her 16 trucks will be keeping the oil wells going for a very long time to come.

That said, hydrogen may start to become a serious factor in our driving lives sooner than we think, in both cars and trucks. Nikola Motor Company’s fuel-cell trucks aside, passenger cars are leading the way here. Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda all have commercially available fuel-cell models, and fuel-cell growth in the transportation sector nearly tripled last year. There were nearly 3,500 fuel-cell electric cars on the road in the U.S., primarily in California, through the end of 2017.

As of last year’s end, there were 40 retail hydrogen stations and nine non-retail stations in the U.S., but 45 (plus 11 private fleet facilities) in Germany alone. As many as 400 service stations are planned there by 2023 as part of the H2 Mobility Joint Venture run by Daimler, Linde, Shell, Total, and others. Europe has a clear lead over North America, not least because the German government very actively supports infrastructure development. But Japan is more advanced still, with 91 public outlets.

Enter Nikola. It’s really on the move, according to a press release last month. Targeting $200 million in investment funds, Nikola CEO Trevor Milton announced that more than $100 million had already been raised and funded in August.

“So far this year we have kicked off plans to build the largest hydrogen network in the world with Nel, secured a massive 800-truck order commitment from Anheuser-Busch, developed the most energy-dense battery system on the market with almost 400 watt hours per liter, engineered a 240-kW fuel cell, kicked off electric vehicle stability controls and electric ABS with WABCO, designed a thermo-management and HVAC system with Mahle, finalized the most advanced Class 8 independent suspension on the market with Meritor, relocated our company to Arizona to build our new 150,000-square-foot headquarters, and now closed on $100 million.”

Nel ASA may be the most important element. Since its foundation in 1927, the Norwegian company has been developing hydrogen plants, so Nikola has partnered with a seriously experienced outfit. Its capabilities cover the entire value chain, from hydrogen production technologies to manufacturing of hydrogen fueling stations, providing all fuel-cell electric vehicles with what it claims to be “the same fast fueling and long range as conventional vehicles today.”

By 2028, Nikola plans to have more than 700 Nel-built hydrogen stations across the U.S. and Canada. The first 14 stations will be up and running by 2021, we’re promised.

Give these guys credit: They’re really pioneering hydrogen-electric renewable technology. With a range of between 500 and 1,200 miles and refill time within 20 minutes, Nikola trucks will be in fleets beginning in 2020 and in full production by 2021, the company says. It adds that it has nearly $11 billion in pre-order reservations.

Nikola is going to be a force, I predict. Maybe my friend really should be concerned.