What to Know About Hydrogen Vehicles

Unless you drive a big rig or a locomotive, there probably isn’t a whole lot you need to know

By Gary S. Vasilash

According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center of the U.S. Department of Energy, “In mid-2020, there were about 43 retail stations available nationwide.” Those are retail stations where there is hydrogen refueling. The sentence went on, “mostly concentrated in California.”

The good news is that the AFDC accumulated more data on the retail hydrogen fueling infrastructure in the U.S. And what’s more, there is actually an increase in the number of stations.

But there is still that concentration in California.

The total is 49 retail stations.

Forty-eight of those are in California.

There is one in Hawaii.

Meanwhile, over in the European Union there are more stations, although the numbers from the ACEA don’t indicate whether these are retail-only or whether the number also includes private refueling stations.

When it comes to the EU Germany is almost like California.

That is, there are 83 hydrogen refueling stations there, which accounts for 66.9% of the total 124 stations in all of the EU.

All of this goes to the point that you are not likely to be rolling around in a hydrogen-powered vehicle any time soon—even if you live in California.

The infrastructure for refueling simply isn’t there.

Notes Charlie Freese, “It is a difficult infrastructure play if you have a station and are refueling one vehicle per week.”

In a record published earlier this year for the Department of Energy about plans for 111 new hydrogen refueling stations in California, “Hydrogen Fueling Stations Cost,” “Capital equipment cost estimates for 111 new fueling stations. . .varied between approximately $1,200 and $3,000 per kilogram hydrogen dispensed per day.”

According to Freese, you can think of a kilogram of hydrogen as a gallon of gasoline.

This is a fuel cell. Actually a HYDROTEC fuel cell module that contains fuel cells. (Image: Steve Fecht for General Motors)

Yes, a very difficult infrastructure play.

But Freese is a proponent of hydrogen. He is the executive director of General Motors’ global fuel cell business which uses the name HYDROTEC.

HYDROTEC fuel cell modules have a variety of applications in transportation—applications that you might not expect.

That is, it has announced activities with:

  • Liebherr-Aerospace: Yes, fuel cells for aircraft
  • Wabtec: A producer of locomotives
  • Navistar: Two HYDROTEC fuel cell cubes will be used to power Navistar’s International RH Series

Freese points out that there are extensive opportunities in applications like these because there is a lot that is “known”:

Planes fly on specific routes and land at airports. Locomotive routes are literally on rails. And trucking goes from the depot to the point of delivery—and at the point of delivery (e.g., a warehouse or factory) there are likely to be pieces of material handling equipment—powered by hydrogen.

For individual drivers where one might go is not known. So there can be refueling stations that accumulate proverbial—if not actual—cobwebs.

But for commercial transport, there is the opportunity to have a calculated number of fuel users, which is an absolute advantage.

On this edition of “Autoline After Hours” Freese talks with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Lindsay Brooke of SAE’s Automotive Engineering and me on a variety of hydrogen-related subjects.

In addition to which, John, Lindsay and I talk about a variety of other subjects, including VW’s commitment to EVs, the European Commission’s tentative plan to stop sale of new vehicles powered with internal combustion engines in the region by 2035, the right to repair, and more.

Which you can see right here.

More on Hydrogen

Hyundai has a big slice of the market

By Gary S. Vasilash

Although the bullishness of Hyundai is something that yesterday’s piece on the XCIENT big-rig noted, we didn’t realize the magnitude of that commitment until we saw this pie chart from a research firm, Information Trends :

(Image: Information Trends)

Yes, that’s right, Hyundai has about 75% of the entire pie.

However, the pie needs to be put into some context:

According to the firm, approximately 8,500 passenger fuel cell vehicles (not big-rigs) were sold in 2020.

To put that into some context: Toyota sells more Camrys in a week in the U.S. than that total number of global fuel cell sales, so there is a way to go. Quite a way.

Hyundai Building Big With Hydrogen

“With 2021 XCIENT Fuel Cell, Hyundai will contribute to the widespread adoption of commercial vehicles powered by hydrogen.”– Jaehoon (Jay) Chang, CEO and President of Commercial Vehicle Division at Hyundai Motor Company

By Gary S. Vasilash

When people think about “electric vehicles” it tends to be in the context of a car like a Tesla Model 3 or if it is a truck it is the Rivian R1T. These are electric vehicles that are powered by electricity that is stored in a battery.

Fuel cell-powered vehicles are electric vehicles, too. The difference is essentially that instead of batteries there are high-pressure cylinders full of hydrogen that is then transformed on board—through the fuel cell—into electricity.

Using hydrogen to propel big rigs. (Image: Hyundai)

Both the traditional EV and the fuel cell vehicle then have electric motors that are used to propel the vehicle.

While most people, naturally, think of something that they might drive, a big impact both technologically and ecologically is going to be trucks—not F-150 Lightnings, but big rigs.

Batteries are heavy for sedans. They are even more massively heavy to move Class 7 and 8 trucks.

So hydrogen becomes a good alternative, especially as the amount of fuel that can be stored on board provides sufficient range, and the hydrogen tanks can be refilled within minutes, not hours as can be the case for battery recharging.

Hyundai has announced that it will begin production of its 2021 XCIENT Fuel Cell heavy-duty truck in August.

The vehicle has a 180-kW hydrogen fuel cell system and two 90-kW fuel cell stacks. There are seven hydrogen storage tanks that hold about 31 kg of fuel. That goes to power a 350-kW e-motor. The range is estimated to be about 400 km. Refueling time is from 8 to 20 minutes.

At present there are 46 XCIENTs rolling around Switzerland right now and Hyundai plans to ship an additional 140 to the country by the end of the year. It intends to have some 1,600 heavy-duty fuel cell electric trucks in Europe by 2025.

Yes, Hyundai is going to bring the model to the U.S. this year.

Can Hydrogen Carry the Freight (and Commuters)?

One of the things that people probably don’t think too much about is the extent of the U.S. freight rail network: approximately 140,000 miles of track, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Also according to the US DOT, as of 2016 (its most recent number) there were 26,716 Class 1 freight locomotives hauling 315,227 Class 1 freight cars. And Amtrak had 434 locomotives and 1,402 cars.

As for transit rail, 7,190 vehicles for commuter rail, 10,775 for heavy rail, and 2,553 for light rail.

All of which is to say that there are a lot of goods and people being transported by rail.

2021 Toyota Mirai. It is powered by hydrogen. Can trains be, too? (Image: Toyota)

So it was interesting to note that two firms have announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding in which NextGenPropulsion (NGP) is going to be purchasing solid-oxide fuel cell (SOFC) systems from Fuel Cell Enabling Technologies (FCET), which developed the system.

Odd are you have not heard of NGP or FCET. We hadn’t.

But it is interesting to know that on the NGP team there are people who had worked with people at the University of Birmingham and the University of Warwick in the U.K.—and as you may recall, the steam locomotive had its start in the U.K., as George Stephenson is credited with developing the world’s first successful locomotive. Apparently there are prototype hydrogen-powered trains on the rails in the U.K.

However, those locomotives are using PEM fuel cells and the NGP tech is SOFC, which, according to Dr. Keith Baarson, a founder and a chief engineer of NGP, says represents “a high-efficiency ell at a price point that will make the commercialization of hydrogen-powered rail not only a possibility, but an obvious replacement for current, century-old technology.”

Sure, fuel-cell powered Toyota Mirais and Hyundai Nexos may be sexier, but things like this is where there can be return-on-investment for users, so it is undoubtedly an area where hydrogen is going to achieve a significant presence.