Daimler Truck's FUSO eCanter, which the company says provides a 62-mile (100-kilometer) range with a single charge. The company's CEO also insists hydrogen fuel cell-powered trucks need to be an important part of the global trucking sector.
The discourse over electric vehicles (EVs) has been heating up, thanks partly to a field of high-profile startups headed by Tesla. However, much of the attention has tilted towards electric vehicle batteries. Hydrogen fuel cells also provide for zero-emission mobility, and Daimler Truck CEO Martin Daum is among those who advocate for including both fuel cells and batteries in the mix.
The case for batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, too
In the context of technology available today, the case for including both batteries and hydrogen in the global electrification strategy is a simple one.
During an interview with CNBC earlier this month, Daum explained that Daimler Truck is committed to both as it is a diversified company that makes trucks for a variety of uses.
Shorter distances are appropriate for batteries, especially where there are opportunities for overnight charging. For longer trips and quicker refueling, fuel cells fill the bill.
“In general, you can say: If you go to city delivery where you need lower amounts of energy in there, you can charge overnight in a depot, then it’s certainly battery electric,” Daum explained. “But the moment you’re on the road, the moment you go from Stockholm to Barcelona … in my opinion, you need something which you can transport better and where you can refuel better and that is ultimately H2.”
Daimler Truck and electrification diversity
Daimler Truck is a recent spin-off from Daimler AG. Its focus is on buses and heavy-duty trucks, while the latter will concentrate on passenger cars and vans under the Mercedes brand.
That arrangement sheds additional light on Daum’s embrace of both fuel cells and batteries. He affirmed the diversified approach last month, when the Daimler Truck spinoff was announced.
“As a technologically leading manufacturer of trucks and buses, we will do everything we can around the world to offer our customers the best products, our shareholders an attractive return on their investment, and our employees sustainable jobs,” Daum said. “That’s why we are accelerating the development of battery and fuel-cell vehicles in all segments along the way to emission-free transport.”
Fuel cell passenger cars are facing hurdles in the competition for market space against an ever-improving scenario for battery-electric cars. In contrast, the playing field is leveling in the area of heavy-duty mobility including construction equipment as well as trucks and buses.
Cleaning up the zero-emission act
Batteries and hydrogen fuel cells provide for zero emission mobility at the tailpipe, but Daimler Truck and other automakers still have to address sustainability challenges in both fields.
Battery electric vehicles currently rely on lithium-ion technology. Until other formulas are developed, the auto industry will need to address environmental and human rights issues in the global lithium supply chain. The worldwide lithium-ion battery recycling industry also needs to be ramped up.
Fuel cell technology also faces supply chain and environmental issues related to mining. Fuel cells generate electricity by combining hydrogen with oxygen in the presence of a catalyst, typically based on platinum. Until alternatives are developed, fuel cell car manufacturers will need to address the impacts of platinum mining.
The green hydrogen piece of the puzzle
Hydrogen fuel cells have garnered an eco-friendly image because they generate electricity without producing airborne pollutants. Water is the only byproduct. However, the zero-emission picture is clouded by natural gas, which is currently the primary source of the global hydrogen supply.
Fortunately, alternative sources have already begun to emerge. Much of the investment activity is currently focusing on green hydrogen, in which renewable energy provides electricity to run electrolysis systems, which can push hydrogen gas out of water.
The renewable energy angle could help accelerate the growth of the global green hydrogen supply by attracting the same deep-pocketed oil and gas stakeholders that have been pursuing wind and solar energy opportunities.
That is apparently under way. Last spring, for example, Shell signed an agreement with Daimler Truck AG to develop fuel cell hubs and fueling stations in the European Union that feature green hydrogen. Shell also played a key role in the launch of the EU’s new Refhyne green hydrogen project last summer, and earlier this month the company announced a new green hydrogen partnership with the firm Norsk Hydro.
BP provides another example. Last week, Sally Prickett, the company’s vice president for hydrogen market development, told attendees at the recent S&P Global Platts hydrogen markets conference that “we see hydrogen as a really important vector in decarbonizing some of the particularly difficult-to-decarbonize areas of industry and transport.”
According to Prickett, BP is providing room for gas-sourced hydrogen in its 10-year plan, but electrolysis systems for green hydrogen are also included.
Daimler Truck and other diversified automakers that are committed to incorporating fuel cells into their decarbonization plans should begin pressing BP and other energy stakeholders to make more green hydrogen available as quickly as possible. Otherwise, their new fuel cell vehicles will be dragging a long tail of fossil energy behind them for years to come.
Image credit via Daimler Truck
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.