Toyota is operating 10 Kenworth Class-8 trucks around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach powered by two Mirai fuel-cell stacks. (Toyota)

SAE WCX 2022: Paving the way for the hydrogen highway

Looking beyond EVs at other systems that can garner net-zero capabilities.

With the majority of public debate centering around the internal combustion engine (ICE)-to-EV transition, the engineering community continues to explore alternative forms of E-propulsion. The 2022 SAE WCX Leadership Summit panel “The Hydrogen Highway” gathered multiple H2 experts to assess hydrogen’s potential role across all vehicle segments.

Moderated by Peter Devlin, the technology development and intergovernmental coordination manager for the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s (DOE) fuel cell technologies office (FCTO), Devlin was joined remotely by Joanna Richart, head of hydrogen business at Ricardo. On site for the panel (below; right to left) was: Jacquelyn Birdsall, senior engineering manager of the Fuel Cell Integration Group at Toyota Motor North America Research and Development; Ryan Harty, senior manager of Honda’s CASE & Energy Business Development division; and Wayne Eckerle, VP of solid oxide and advanced exploratory technologies for the New Power Business at Cummins Inc.

Each panelist presented their companies’ efforts in expanding hydrogen’s role in the transportation sector, with a common aspect of bringing hydrogen’s role as either a combustion fuel or fuel-cell resource out of the industrial/commercial space and into the light-duty vehicle market. Edited highlights of each speakers’ presentations follow.

Expanding hydrogen infrastructure
The DOE’s Devlin provided a keen snapshot of current hydrogen use in the U.S., noting the majority of applications center around backup fuel-cell power setups for systems such as cellular towers (quoting 550 megawatts of capacity for more than 8,600 such units), with forklifts the largest commercial ICE use, with more than 50,000 in use nationwide. He explained that creating a distribution network for the fuel will be crucial, noting 200 retail stations (primarily in California) are being planned, with 50 already installed and operating. He cited 12 to 20 stations planned in the Northeast supporting the 12,000 light-duty vehicles on U.S. roads today.

While there is growing technology to take advantage of hydrogen’s properties, Devlin explained that reducing the price of the fuel will be key. “It's not just R&D,” he explained. “We've got to get large volume to get the cost of the hydrogen down. We've taken a broad view of where hydrogen can be certainly anchored by transportation, and we’ve been working on that for many years now, but also recognizing there's good uses of hydrogen for other sectors as well.”

“Some of the key opportunities that we are pursuing now include steel for direct iron reduction, ammonia needs hydrogen, and sustainable aviation fuel,” he continued. “There's a three-billion-gallon goal in the Department of Energy to provide clean aviation fuel, and they need clean hydrogen to make that happen. Transportation's broader now. We've spent years on light duty, but we're also quite involved now with medium and heavy-duty trucks, and marine and buses, of course. There's lots of job potential and lots of revenue potential with hydrogen for all these different applications.”

According to Devlin, the cost challenges are being hardwired into the agency’s policy, noting the “Hydrogen Shot” challenge set forth by U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm (the first of several “energy earth shots” announced), labeled 1 1 1: $1 for one kilogram of clean hydrogen in one decade. “We still have a cost for hydrogen fuel that’s too high. For fuel cells, we need that to come down more so everybody can make a profit by selling these vehicles,” Devlin reiterated. Beyond cost, a sufficient infrastructure and public awareness remain the largest challenges. “People still don't know what we mean by hydrogen fuel and how we can use it to power our vehicles, and to use it for a number of energy sources,” he said. “So, we’ve still got a way to go.”

Applying a new form of energy
Ricardo’s Richart noted that her company is in a unique position, as it combines engineering consultancy with strategic and environmental services. “Having a combination of the three is especially important for hydrogen,” she said, “because there are often complex issues to solve because of ‘Where does the energy comes from?’, and ‘How do I use it in vehicles?’ needs to be solved together. We can help people on the journey, from the environmental issues all the way to that actual vehicle-level engineering.”

Richart said Ricardo sees hydrogen as part of the mix, and it works to stay technology neutral. “We don't push hydrogen to people just because I love it and represent hydrogen in Ricardo,” she chided. “If the right solution is electrification/battery, we will do that for our clients. Hydrogen is really just one of the many answers clients can get when they come and ask for solutions.”

Key to making an informed decision on a vehicle’s propulsion system is understanding the entire hydrogen value chain, Richart explained, beginning with how the hydrogen is produced. “How we produce it, where we produce it, is actually quite complex,” she said. “Then comes the storage, which needs to be sized right to the volatile demand. Then distribute it at the right time, right place, and then utilization. It's not just the transportation which we are focusing on today, but the whole industry.”

Particularly for fuel-cell applications, one of the largest challenges according to Richart, is manufacturing scale. “Finding scale is very difficult, but you do need to do so with many industries moving at the same time in order for hydrogen to create a business case,” she said. “Everybody wants to scale up, but a solution for these [alternate] industries is very different.” For example, aerospace needs light weight systems, while hybrid vehicles need long-term durability.

Clear commercial benchmarks
Cummins has created its New Power Business section specifically to manage the transition from traditional ICE engines to zero-carbon products. “When we think about hydrogen, we recognize it's not the silver bullet,” Eckerle explained. “We sell to commercial customers, and commercial customers live and die on meeting a total cost of ownership. In some of the earlier sessions, I heard people buy electrified powertrains for the fun of it. That's not our customer base.”

Eckerle pointed to four benchmarks vs. EVs for a commercial hydrogen transition. “One is around refueling time, with hydrogen you’ve got about a 10X advantage on refueling time,” he said. “The second area is on range. We think that a hydrogen powertrain will get about double the range of a battery powertrain for the kinds of jobs that our customers have to deliver.” The third benchmark is the vehicle’s energy-to-weight ratio, an area in which hydrogen powertrains have “about a 10X advantage.”

Flexibility, the fourth benchmark, “is really important for Cummins’ mid-range customers, because the load that they deliver from day-to day-varies. Typically, if you're going to buy a vehicle with a battery, you have to buy a battery large enough to do the worst case, the largest amount of energy,” Eckerle explained. “So when you don't need all that storage capability, you're carrying this heavy battery around.” Hydrogen, by comparison, has a significant cost advantage related to storage. “If you don't fill the tank with hydrogen because you don't need it, you're not carrying that extra storage around,” he said.

Scalable stacks
Toyota launched the first generation of its Mirai fuel-cell electric sedan (FCEV) in the U.S. in 2015, and its second-gen in 2021, making it, along with the Hyundai Nexo, one of only two current light-duty production FCEVs (Honda ended production of its California-only Clarity FCEV in 2021). Toyota’s Birdsall pointed out that a key advantage of fuel cell technology is the gravimetric energy density of hydrogen fuel, permitting easy scalability of the stack technology.

Toyota installed two Mirai fuel-cell stacks in a Class-8 semi-tractor in 2017, allowing it to haul 80,000 pounds. Success with the prototype led to the construction of 10 more Kenworth trucks (top) that are now operating in and around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. “We think this is just one of many applications where we can re-power gasoline and diesel with hydrogen and fuel cell,” Birdsall said. “They are providing clean, quiet power and great cost of ownership, which is what commercial fleets care about. You can expect more announcements coming out of Toyota to that end.”

During the panel’s lengthy Q&A, Birdsall noted the transition to zero-emission driving will be lengthy. “A lot of states, a lot of governments have grasped onto this idea of no more ICE. We're banning IC engines, and it's not going to happen. I mean, it will eventually, at some point far in the future,” she clarified, “because we're not going to just snap our fingers and have the infrastructure totally transition and ready to accommodate 100 percent battery electric and fuel cell electric.” She asserted that decarbonizing transportation will require a combination of electrified powertrains. “It's too complex of a problem to have a simple solution,” Birdsall said.

The hydrogen transition challenge
As the largest ICE manufacturer in the world, every aspect of Honda’s automotive, aircraft, power sports, power equipment and marine products will be affected by zero emission mandates. According to Honda’s Harty, the challenge is transitioning as rapidly as possible. “I live in downtown Long Beach and my son has asthma,” he shared. “I greatly appreciate the efforts of the heavy-duty folks to transition as rapidly as possible. Because finally, collectively, that's what's driving the transition, the combination of greenhouse gas emissions regulations and the air quality emissions regulations.”

“We talk about total cost of ownership from the private corporate or private customer perspective, but we need to reframe and redraw the boundary condition about what it is we're doing and why,” Harty suggested. Honda has adopted a carbon neutrality goal by 2050 across its entire corporate value chain. Its product roadmap sees 40% of its products sold as hydrogen fuel cell or electric vehicles by 2030, 80% by 2035 and 100% by 2040, towards the 2050 zero carbon goal, he noted.

Zero-emission, zero-carbon fuels are also important. “As we transition the product pathway, introducing batteries and fuel cells into the products where they make sense,” Harty continued, “we see great opportunity in the interplay between renewable electricity and hydrogen to form both zero-carbon fuels – they can be hydrocarbon-based solutions – as well as using hydrogen as an energy storage means and fuel source itself.”

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