Hydrogen-powered vehicles in logistics

As sustainability becomes increasingly more of a focus for the world, and the world of logistics, the discussion on hydrogen has intensified.

As sustainability becomes increasingly more of a focus for the world, and the world of logistics, the search for alternative fuels has intensified. Hydrogen has emerged as one of the contenders in this search, though while it offers many possibilities, challenges and obstacles put its future as a viable alternative solution to oil-based fuels at risk.

Hydrogen production

An assumption underlying the proposition that hydrogen can be used as a vehicle fuel is that it can be cheaply produced. At present this is not true. Hydrogen is largely produced as a product of wider chemical, particularly petrochemical, production. Of course, this relies on gas as a raw material as well as an energy source. A related means of producing hydrogen is through the gasification of coal, which is a cheap and well-understood technology. However, both these means require consuming hydrocarbons.

The other viable option in the short-to-medium term is electrolysis. The electricity for this can be generated by any means, however, nuclear reactors are an attractive option as they supply a constant flow of energy that can ensure a high level of utilisation. However, at present, there are a number of proposed large projects that use wind and solar for the production of hydrogen.

Electrolysis plants can be small enough to be located approximate to a traditional gasoline fuel station if sufficient electricity is available. Electricity demand is substantial.

Therefore, although hydrogen is super-abundant, it is expensive to turn into fuel. Although electrolysis equipment is comparatively low-cost in that the cost of the equipment can be amortised over the flow of fuel, it also requires electricity which is likely to be more expensive than hydrocarbons. The combination of these two cost-drivers alone is likely to make hydrogen a more expensive fuel option than electric vehicles if measured in terms of on energy units delivered to the vehicle.

Hydrogen logistics

A major feature, indeed draw-back, of many hydrogen fuel systems is the cost of hydrogen logistics. Hydrogen as a gas at ambient temperature is less dense than methane. It, therefore, needs more energy in order to compress it. As with (natural) gas, this weakens the economics of using tanker vessels. To a lesser degree, it also weakens the economic fundamentals of pipelines as larger pipelines are needed to move a cubic metre of hydrogen than a cubic metre of gas.

A further problem is the corrosive nature of hydrogen. Although hydrogen-rich coal gas has been extensively used through urban pipeline networks, pure hydrogen is corrosive of steel, making pipeline solutions more complex.

The storage of hydrogen is made more complex by both of these characteristics.

Storage

This is a key issue constraining the success of hydrogen vehicles. As mentioned above, the success of any attempts to use hydrogen as a vehicle fuel is dependent on the ability to handle and store it cost effectively. This is particularly relevant in terms of storing hydrogen within the vehicle. The most common method of storage is the use of tanks holding hydrogen under pressure. These are heavy due to the strength of the tanks required to hold the hydrogen at the density required. There are alternatives to this, for example, the use of fabric to store hydrogen which may facilitate more efficient storage. Either way, the cost and complexity of storing hydrogen on vehicles is very much greater than storing liquid hydrocarbons.

Refuelling is comparatively straightforward in that filling fuel tanks ought to be quick and easy using pumps. Of course, pumping hydrogen and compressing it consumes considerable quantities of energy.

Conclusion

The salient feature in analysing the market for hydrogen and batteries as alternative fuels applied to road freight is uncertainty. The technology of both hydrogen fuel cells and advanced batteries is immature. Either may progress rapidly in the next few years, or possibly neither. Fuel cells may remain very expensive and the production of hydrogen uneconomic. Battery technology may not progress in terms of the speed of re-charging and the power-to-weight ratio.

However, if some reasonably generous assumptions are made about the progress of both technologies are made, it is probably the case that whilst both technologies will work at the operational level it is battery-electric vehicles that will prove to be the most popular solution simply due to the energy economics of producing and moving hydrogen.

Source: Transport Intelligence, June 3, 2021

Author: Transport Intelligence

This brief has been taken from a larger paper, ‘Hydrogen-Powered Vehicles In Logistics’ by Ti’s Senior Analyst, Thomas Cullen. This paper is available exclusively to GSCi subscribers. Each week, Ti’s team of senior analysts and industry experts deliver analysis covering the latest logistics and supply chain trends exclusively to users of GSCi.

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