Net zero hinges on batteries and hydrogen fuel cells

Technological advances continue to line the trucking road to net zero. From plans for hydrogen highways to improved fuel cell development for trucks, the transport sector is buzzing with pilots, trials and ideas.  As the massive changeover to zero-emissions vehicles continues, a range of possible trucking solutions have rumbled into view – from electric battery swap-and-go storage facilities on well-travelled routes to ever faster and more efficient electric battery charging systems.

With a geographically huge expanse of territory and a relatively small population, Australia has an unusually high dependence on long-distance trucking, says Grattan Institute energy and climate change program director Tony Wood. As ideas proliferate and technology develops, he expects the decarbonisation winners and losers in the trucking sector will emerge over time.

“The problem with transport for net zero,” Wood says, “is you’ve got the vehicle, you’ve got the fuel, you’ve got to put them together somewhere. The logistics are really complicated.”

Two zero emissions systems have come to the fore: electric battery vehicles and trucks with hydrogen fuel cell systems. New era electric battery trucks require recharging with renewable power, which can take time. Smaller short-range delivery and courier trucks usually head back to the depot overnight, where they can be recharged.

Most experts agree that, in general, electric batteries are less suitable for long haul trucks and vehicles that carry heavy loads such as garbage trucks and concrete mixers. The sheer size of electric batteries needed to power heavy-duty and long-haul trucks which routinely cover hundreds of kilometres in a day could prove logistically impossible, some experts warn.

Sourcing sufficient renewable power for large-scale battery recharging could be tricky as well. Wood says that if a big roadhouse with multiple bowsers was replaced by a facility with multiple high-speed charging points the local substation might have trouble coping with the surge in demand. “That’s where truck recharging runs into real trouble,” he says.

One company is exploring the idea of a drive-along electric battery charging system. For this to work, an electric battery truck might have a pantograph-type mechanism  on its roof and this power conducting trolley would connect to a power transmission wire strung along a highway – a bit like a tram. The truck would connect to the system at point A, and then drive along recharging for some kilometres until the recharge was finished and it would then disconnect at point B.

Another firm is looking into the idea of establishing large highway facilities housing racks of fully-charged batteries, Wood says. An electric battery truck would pull into the facility, a large forklift would be used to remove and replace the truck’s massive, depleted battery with a fully-charged one from the racks and the truck could then go on its way.

Wood says it costs a couple of hundred thousand dollars to convert a large truck to renewable energy and investors and owners want to recoup their investment by keeping the wheels rolling rather than wasting time waiting for too long for an electric battery to recharge. The utilisation of truck is fundamentally important,” he says. “Those guys want to run 24/7.”

Many in the industry believe the better option for long-haul trucks is a green hydrogen fuel cell system, which would entail trucks refuelling at hydrogen refuelling stations along highways.

Often seen as an environmentally-friendly replacement for diesel, green hydrogen is produced by using renewable energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen via electrolysis. The oxygen can be vented into the atmosphere and the hydrogen stored and transported and used to power heavy transport including long-haul trucks.

Australia’s first hydrogen research and development facility, the multi-million dollar Hycel Technology Hub at Deakin University’s Warrnambool campus will work on developing high performance single stack fuel cells for heavy vehicles, in partnership with commercial transport company Paccar. The Hub will have Australia’s first large fuel cell manufacturing line, which will also test fuel cells for heavy vehicles, Deakin says, so they will no longer have to be sent to Canada or Germany.

Nick Birbilis, Deakin’s executive dean of science, says Australia has everything required for a hydrogen economy, and hydrogen fuel cell trucks can be both completely green and independent of the international supply networks necessary for electric batteries, which are currently not manufactured in Australia.

“We’re at the precipice right now, where hydrogen fuel vehicles are not necessarily a lot more expensive and the logistics of refuelling are in a transition period,” he says.  “We need to emerge as leaders in cleaner energy”.

Australia is rich in the solar and wind resources needed to produce the renewable energy used to make green hydrogen. “Producing hydrogen is just a no-brainer for Australia,” Birbilis says. “When you use it as a fuel in vehicles, the hydrogen is reconverted to electrons whenever you need them through a thing called a fuel cell and those electrons drive the electric motor.”

Deakin plans to establish a hydrogen refuelling station on the main highway at Warrnambool and will partner with TAFE to provide courses in the skills needed to use, maintain and repair hydrogen equipment.

There are already a handful of hydrogen refuelling stations around Australia and many more in the pipeline. Australia’s largest supplier of industrial gas, Coregas, in July opened the nation’s first commercial hydrogen refuelling station for heavy vehicles in Port Kembla, in NSW.

In Tasmania, Countrywide Hydrogen plans to produce green hydrogen and establish its own branded H2Co hydrogen refuelling stations in Devonport, Launceston and Brighton, with the first coming on-line by mid 2025 “at the latest”, says managing director Geoffrey Drucker. Trucks powered by green hydrogen have a range of 250 kilometres, he adds, and the Tasmania program will demonstrate to the rest of Australia the viability of Countrywide Hydrogen’s “hydrogen hyway”.

Green hydrogen, a gas, can be transported via trucks and stored in tanks – potentially underground – in refuelling stations. Other refuelling solutions include back-to-base hydrogen operations, which entail transporting a container of green hydrogen to a facility, such as a bus station, where the hydrogen is used to refuel buses.

When the hydrogen runs out, the hydrogen company replaces the container with a full one.  Ampol in August announced it had signed up with the US-based hydrogen fuel company OneH2 and expects to begin back-to-base operations in the months to come, scaling up over time.

“Hydrogen has a key role to play in reducing emissions across Australia’s transport and broader energy sector,” said Ampol international and new business executive general manager Brent Merrick.

There are already heavy-duty trucks in Australia that can travel up to 300 kilometres on a single charge, and the next generation is being trialled, which will extend that range to 500 kilometres, says Todd Hacking, CEO of the Heavy Vehicle Industry Australia association.

Green hydrogen can be used to power fuel cells, but it can also be used more directly as a combustible fuel for vehicles, he adds. Hydrogen is the fuel in the same way that an LPG truck runs on LPG or a natural gas truck runs on natural gas.

Green hydrogen, either as a fuel or to power fuel cells, should be seen as complementary to batteries, he adds. Each system has different characteristics and so would better suit different sectors and freight tasks. Both green hydrogen and electric batteries, he says, “will play a significant role in decarbonising freight transport”.

Both battery electric trucks and hydrogen fuel-cell trucks are now available in Australia, including some manufactured by local companies, Hacking says. Right now, the biggest hurdle is the restrictive regulations that limit the weight of zero-emissions vehicles,” he says, adding that a zero emissions truck is heavier than a conventional truck and regulations will have to change to accommodate this extra weight.

Hacking believes the Australian truck industry is up to speed on the road to net zero. “Public and subscription-based heavy vehicle electric charging and hydrogen refuelling stations are in the works,” he says. “Truck and trailer manufacturers and equipment suppliers have products available in the market to support the changeover today.”

The Australian