This article also appears in
Subscribe now »
Hyundai XCIENT Class 8 trucks at the nation’s first fast-fill commercial truck stop. A dedicated fleet of trucks moving Port of Oakland cargo will keep the station, operated under FirstElement’s True Zero retail brand, busy. (Karl Nielsen)

FirstElement opens America’s first high-volume, fast-fill hydrogen station for HD trucks

Station can put 100 kg of hydrogen in up to 200 trucks a day in less than 10 minutes each.

It may be missing the food and hospitality trappings of what most would consider a proper “truck stop,” but the nation’s first high-volume, rapid-fill hydrogen truck refueling station is a giant leap toward a future in which H2 is the natural and sustainable fuel for the nation’s heavy-haul overland transportation needs.

FirstElement Fuel recently opened the location under its TrueZero brand at the Port of Oakland, where a dedicated fleet of 30 Class 8 Hyundai XCIENT hydrogen-powered trucks will stay fueled as they operate virtually 24/7 moving containers and cargo around Alameda County. The station, which stores liquid H2 on site, has two HD truck fueling positions and four medium- or light-duty positions. Among the station’s previously unheard-of numbers:

  • 18,000 kg (39,700 lb) per day of pumping capacity.
  • Can simultaneously support back-to-back fast fills (less than 10 minutes) of up to 100 kg (220 lb).
  • Total throughput can be up to 200 trucks per day.

Those numbers represent a massive jump compared to FirstElement’s previous generation fueling stations, which also store liquid hydrogen but only have a capacity of 1,600 kg (3,525 lb)/day. The first stations only had one dispenser, were supplied by gaseous hydrogen and had a limit of just 200 kg (440 lb)/day.

Nikola has also committed to using the station for an undisclosed volume of trucks.

Shane Stephens, FirstElement’s founder and chief development officer, said the company plans to build 15 more of the stations in California, and that those stations would include at least four HD truck fueling positions. “This is a major milestone in getting rid of the ‘chicken-or-egg’ hurdle for heavy-duty trucking with hydrogen,” he said.

Filling vehicles with hydrogen is a far more complex proposition than with gasoline or diesel or even BEV charging. While early FirstElement stations stored gaseous hydrogen, the Port of Oakland station stores liquid hydrogen at -253 degrees Celsius (-423 deg F). That’s beneficial because liquid hydrogen is 10 times denser than the gas version, meaning fewer resupply deliveries, smaller station footprints and higher volumes of service.

Cryopumps are key
The liquid hydrogen still must be converted into a gas, though, to go into today’s truck fuel tanks. FirstElement chief technical officer Ghassan Sleiman said that is where cryopumps enter the picture. They achieve high-pressure or subcooled liquid hydrogen. Then, using FirstElement patented tech, high-pressure storage, heat exchangers and flow management are used to achieve high state-of-charge (SOC) fills at pressures of H70, H35 or as sub-cooled liquid.

Sleiman said the old technology used multiple valves, whereas a new, two-stage cryopump system developed with Bosch Rexroth, uses variable servomotors that don’t result in throttling losses, when efficiency is reduced in the work to move a gas past valves. Another Bosch breakthrough is a newly developed compression cylinder that can compress up to 600 kg (1,320 lb) of liquid hydrogen per hour.
The new FirstElement/Bosch Rexroth cryopump, which can deliver 2,400 kg (5,290 lb)/hour, or continuous refueling at four pumps delivering 600 kg/hour. The first stage is being tested at FirstElement’s R&D facility in Livermore, California. The second stage is being manufactured.David Hull, Bosch Rexroth regional vice president, said the new cryopump tech has eluded the industry for a long time. “We have been talking about hydrogen compression for 25 years,” he said. He lauded FirstElement, saying it “has simply lived the problems and learned the lessons. They’ve iterated and iterated.”

Hull also said that it’s an inflection point for hydrogen because of, among other reasons, the fact that the natural gas supply “has been weaponized globally.”

H2 can help big-polluting ports
Sleiman said the company is far ahead of the competition because of its solid plan and reputation. “We got liquid hydrogen permitted in California where others could not,” he said, adding that future truck locations would see larger footprints than the Port of Oakland station.

The station was developed under the NorCal Zero project with Hyundai and funding from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the California Energy Commission. It’s an important location for carbon emissions reduction because ports on each coast are consistently some of the heaviest polluters in their regions due to the constant activity of diesel trucks. Stephens said local-haul trucks tend to be older, less-maintained and don’t operate at peak efficiency due to slower local traffic. All of that contributes to greater emissions than their over-the-road counterparts.

But the heavy-hauling mission, even OTR, is a use case that seems made for hydrogen fuel cell power. Class 8 hydrogen-powered trucks can see ranges of up to 600 miles (1,000 km) at average gross combined vehicle weights.

Sleiman said that feedback from GET Freight-managed drivers of the Hyundai trucks has been impressive. “Our drivers don’t want to go back to diesel,” he said. “The hydrogen trucks are quiet and there’s less vibration.” The lack of noise is instantly noticeable as one of the trucks pulls up or accelerates away. If the cost of making hydrogen can come down and the ease of making it increased, advocates say it would be a far superior solution for heavy-duty trucking than battery-electric semis such as those produced by Tesla. That’s because the enormous-capacity batteries needed for a semi are extremely heavy and can take up to multiple hours to recharge. Hydrogen trucks can be filled in about the same amount of time it takes to fill a diesel truck.

FirstElement’s Ghassan said the station equipment, both existing and the new cryopump technology, is engineered to be largely maintenance-free. “We don’t build to sell spare parts,” he said. “We build to sell fuel. Most parts of this system should never break down.”

HD trucks aren’t the only place where hydrogen makes sense if the cost can be lowered. Container ships, which generally use low-quality, high-emissions bunker oil, produce as much sulfur pollution in a year as 50 million diesel cars. So, converting ships to hydrogen could reap big environmental benefits.

Liane Randolph, the chair of the influential California Air Resources Board, said at an opening ceremony that FirstElement is showing the way to expand the infrastructure. “This is a massive achievement years in the making,” she said. “From our perspective, we need stations with a lot of capacity – a lot of throughput, and we’re now seeing much communication around trying to build this ecosystem.”

A report by the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Association found that at least 4,300 hydrogen filling stations will be needed by 2030.

The remaining obstacles
The federal government has set aside $8 billion to help fund these early days of hydrogen adoption. Tyson Eckerle, senior advisor for clean infrastructure and mobility to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, said the Port of Oakland station represents “our belief in a better future. There is nothing easy about this, but it will become easy.” He said that government investment should allow for the construction of around 60 more hydrogen truck stations that could serve 5,000 HD trucks and 1,000 buses. He said the health benefits of eliminating the pollution of 5,000 diesel trucks would be worth about $3 billion annually.

FirstElement is well on its way to solving the delivery and filling side of the hydrogen equation. The creation of hydrogen is another leg of the stool; the third is production of hydrogen fuel cell or hydrogen ICE vehicles. The Department of Energy is making efforts to help lower the cost of electrolyzer systems that use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The stated goal is a clean hydrogen created without fossil fuel use at a cost of $1/kg by 2030, with an interim target of $2/kg by next year. The cost of electrolysis now ranges from $5 to $12/kg.

FirstElement founder Stephens said the company’s future truck stops could include amenities like convenience stores, food and showers that drivers are used to seeing. He also said that in addition to building its own stations across the country, the company is willing to consider licensing its tech to other companies if it means helping speed the adoption of hydrogen.

Continue reading »
X