By Nick Buccheri, President, Americas, Discrete Automation at Emerson
The pursuit of decarbonization is steering profound changes in transportation, positioning the industry on the brink of monumental transformation.
The TESCOM HV-3500 Series Two-Stage Pressure-Reducing Regulator is specially designed for use onboard industrial and commercial hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The HV-3500 allows manufacturers to maximize fuel efficiency and keep fleets on the road for longer distances. (Image courtesy of Emerson)
Addressing and preventing the most extreme impacts of climate change is now a focal strategy for governments and industries worldwide. Introducing legislation encompassing ambitious net-zero carbon emission goals has spurred every sector, including transportation, to seek innovative decarbonization methods.
The transportation sector currently contributes to 29% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, offering a significant opportunity to curb its carbon footprint through energy-efficient, low-emission technology.
Merely limiting or capturing carbon emissions from fossil fuel-powered vehicles won’t suffice in the long term. The ultimate goal for substantial industry progress and attaining net-zero targets is clear: all vehicles should generate and transfer energy without carbon emissions.
Companies across the transportation spectrum are investing in various carbon-free energy solutions, acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving net-zero emissions. While battery-electric vehicles exhibit rapid growth, they alone cannot meet the challenge; hydrogen-powered vehicles fill the performance gaps.
Progress in Carbon-Free Vehicles
Government regulations, accompanied by established net-zero technology, are driving the shift from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy sources across stages. Embracing multiple technology avenues, from enhancing internal combustion engine efficiency to promoting battery-electric vehicle adoption through incentives, supports investment in the potential of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).
Solutions such as the TESCOM 26-2000 Series Venting Pressure Regulator are designed to provide a safe, reliable and precise process control in the hydrogen industry. (Image courtesy of Emerson)
Battery-electric vehicles have seen rapid growth over the last 15-20 years. Despite enhancing battery storage and energy consumption efficiencies, they remain most suitable for short distances. Their limitation in mileage between recharging makes them unsuitable for the long-distance travel typical in commercial trucking. A battery-powered long-haul truck may face challenges either in carrying the same load or requiring more frequent recharging stops due to the heavy-duty battery's weight.
Leveraging Existing Infrastructure
Existing industrial and technological infrastructure can ease the transition toward decarbonization. Adapting existing internal combustion engine technology for hydrogen combustion presents an alternative for specific applications, like heavy machinery requiring high-power output bursts.
Despite drawbacks like emissions, hydrogen combustion can be a viable alternative to hydrogen fuel cell technology in specific applications. Although hydrogen combustion doesn’t produce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, it generates nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions when hydrogen combusts with nitrogen gas (N2). However, hydrogen fuel cell efficiencies usually exceed 50%, while hydrogen combustion yields an efficiency of 25-30%.
Critical Factors in Decarbonization
Weight plays a pivotal role when comparing hydrogen fuel cells to battery storage, especially for long-haul freight transport. For equivalent energy storage, hydrogen fuel cells are lighter than batteries, enabling hydrogen fuel cell-equipped trucks to transport similar tonnage as diesel trucks. Hydrogen tanks refuel much faster than recharging truck batteries, maximizing drive time for long-distance routes.
Variety of Options
Supported by government initiatives and global projects, the hydrogen industry is set for rapid expansion.
Hydrogen technology in long-haul freight trucks presents a significant opportunity to decarbonize a key transportation segment. Hydrogen-powered trucks offer shorter refueling times and longer travel distances between stops compared to battery-electric trucks. For instance, a Swiss-based fleet of hydrogen-powered trucks has covered over 3 million miles since 2020. Major consumer goods companies are also testing hydrogen-powered semi-trucks to replace their diesel fleets.
More hydrogen fuel cell applications are being explored in public transportation, exemplified by New York City receiving a grant for its first two fuel cell buses and supporting fueling stations. These buses are anticipated to transport passengers by the end of 2024.
Integrating hydrogen fuel cell electric generators in passenger trains can replace diesel-electric locomotives. These trains will carry sufficient hydrogen for long-distance travel, enabling spacing of hydrogen refueling infrastructure and easing the transition to hydrogen fuel cell technology.
“Hydrarail,” utilizing on-board hydrogen fuel, has already been introduced. In Germany, a passenger train powered by hydrogen fuel cell traveled 1,175 kilometers without refueling its hydrogen tank in 2018.
Charting a Greener Course
Relying solely on one technology risks slowing the transition to a zero-emission future for transportation. Both green hydrogen fuel cell-electric and battery-electric vehicle technologies hold promise in substantially reducing the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of an “either/or” scenario, the future lies in adopting both technologies, given their unique advantages that suit various transportation segments.
Although not as extensively developed as battery-electric technology, green hydrogen demonstrates potential in addressing key transportation needs. With strategic investments across the entire value chain, the hydrogen industry can efficiently upscale its technologies and infrastructure, steering us closer to the carbon-free future we strive for.