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Water vapor instead of exhaust clouds

July 17, 2020

reading time: 12 minutes

by Marc Lustenberger, guest author

hydrogen cars mobility

A new filling station network for hydrogen trucks: An innovative mobility model is being tested in Switzerland.

Under the radar of the general public, Switzerland is currently testing a new transport model. Starting in July, the first CO2-emission-free trucks that do not require big electric batteries will be on the road. They will be fueled by hydrogen – instead of a cloud of black smoke, their exhaust pipes will emit water vapor. In countries such as Switzerland, where surplus electricity is often available from hydro, solar and wind power generation, hydrogen can be produced and distributed locally with relative ease. The 21 members of the H2 Mobility Switzerland Association are now building a nationwide network of hydrogen filling stations – this includes industry giants such as Migros, Coop, Fenaco, AVIA and Emmi.

A unique business model as a success factor

The companies Hydrospider and Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility have together with the H2 Mobility Switzerland Association and H2 Energy formed a business ecosystem that aims to drive forward development in this area as quickly as possible. The closed loop begins with green hydrogen, which is produced in Switzerland exclusively through electricity from renewable energies – and is therefore emission-free and climate-friendly. The vehicles are manufactured by Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility AG which is planning to import up to 1600 fuel cell electric trucks by 2025. The participating companies do not have to buy these trucks, but pay a fee per kilometer driven, using the so-called pay-per-use model. The first 35-ton Hyundai Xcient Fuel Cell trucks will be on Swiss roads starting in fall 2020.  

H2 Mobilität Schweiz Wasserstoff Transport LKW

The members of the H2 Mobility Association Switzerland will put the commercial vehicles into circulation and set up the nationwide refueling infrastructure. Seven filling stations should be available and 50 trucks should already be on the roads in Switzerland by the end of 2020, all of which will rely entirely on the new technology. These electric vehicles carry hydrogen in pressurized tanks, can be refueled easily and can travel around 400 kilometers on 35 kilograms of hydrogen. They are therefore ideally suited to transporting goods. Their hydrogen tanks can be filled in just 10 to 15 minutes. And since they do not have to transport heavy batteries, they have a higher payload. 

How does it work?

Unlike oil, hydrogen is a commodity that is available in unlimited quantities. However, it is usually bonded in the form of water and its extraction is energy-intensive: water is split into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity, a process called electrolysis. Hydrogen is a volatile and reactive gas that can only be stored under high pressure or at very low temperatures. In a fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen generate electricity on a membrane through what is called cold combustion. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen to produce water, energy and heat. In a truck or car, an electric motor can then be powered by such a fuel cell. Fuel cells are energy efficient and do not release any C02. 

However, producing hydrogen requires a lot of energy – in many countries natural gas is used for this purpose. In countries where green electricity can be generated using hydro, wind or solar power, this is a good way to store surplus energy. Until now, however, hydrogen technology has been far too expensive because demand has been too low and automobile companies have been hesitant to enter this segment.

Not enough filling stations, a low availability of cars and a lack of interest from many manufacturers are why this new technology has stagnated for years. BMW started mass producing the Hydrogen 7 in the mid-2000s, but it proved to be a flop. Der Spiegel called it a “very thirsty would-be ecomobile”. Toyota focused on hydrogen for a long time, but has recently also started to produce electric cars. Not long ago, Mercedes announced that the Daimler Group would temporarily halt fuel cell technology development for its passenger car segment. In terms of price, these cars cannot yet compete with battery-powered vehicles in the medium term.

Upswing for commercial vehicles

In contrast, commercial vehicles with fuel cells are currently experiencing a major upswing. The Daimler Group announced that together with its competitor Volvo Trucks, it wants to bring hydrogen trucks to a point of series production readiness. In the US, the new provider Nikola Motor is also at the ready. The company wants to bring two hydrogen-powered trucks to the market by 2021. The chances of a breakthrough in the truck segment are without a doubt greater at the moment than for passenger cars, which are still too expensive.

H2 Mobilität Schweiz Wasserstoff Transport LKW

In order to achieve a breakthrough, an important first step for the new technology is the establishment of a network of hydrogen filling stations. The lack of such a network has been the Achilles heel of the new technology in all countries to date. In Switzerland, filling station operators and transport companies have the potential to build up a nationwide network of hydrogen filling stations together. 

The small country of Switzerland is showing how this can be achieved with the model it is currently pursuing. If refueling facilities are available, the changeover to hydrogen-powered vehicles will also become an attractive option for buyers of passenger cars. Hydrogen cars are easy to refuel and have a range of 500 to 700 kilometers. Over the next few years, the market will show whether these hopes become a reality and the prices of the vehicles come down. However, the creation of the filling station network is certainly a decisive step along the way.

“We are developing a new, sustainable mobility system for Switzerland”

Jörg Ackermann, President of the H2 Mobility Switzerland Association, on the potential of hydrogen mobility.

Jörg Ackermann H2 Mobilität Schweiz Wasserstoff Transport LKW
Jörg Ackermann, President of the H2 Mobility Switzerland Association

Why are Coop and other large Swiss companies committed to the development of H2 mobility right now?
This technology is not new. The fact that hydrogen has potential as a source of energy has long been known. In 1874, Jules Verne called water the coal of the future. But it took a long time until a marketable technical solution was ready. Solving the chicken-egg-problem was important. After all, nobody will buy a hydrogen vehicle if there is no refueling infrastructure in place, and conversely, nobody will build hydrogen filling stations if there are no vehicles on the market. Fourteen well-known transport and logistics companies and seven filling station operators have joined forces to form an association to resolve precisely this conundrum. We are developing a new, sustainable mobility system. This will enable us to make an important contribution to the environment: local and independent production, emission-free mobility.

The first hydrogen-fueled trucks are expected to roll through Switzerland in the fall. How many years of development did it take to get to this point?
We drafted the first concepts for this new mobility system seven years ago and launched a pilot project in Aarau in 2016. The search for a supplier for the trucks was initially difficult, but we ultimately found Hyundai as a partner. Together, we were able to develop a production-ready model for Switzerland in record time – one and a half years. The South Koreans already had a lot of experience with fuel cells in passenger cars, and Hyundai's goal is for these trucks to later be used worldwide.

Why trucks? Wouldn't it make more sense to convert passenger car fleets to fuel cells first?
We are starting with trucks because it’s easier to build a nationwide network of filling stations that way. Heavy commercial vehicles are large fuel consumers and ensure predictable, constant consumption at hydrogen filling stations, thus making it possible to build out the filling station network rapidly and with a low level of risk. By meeting the fuel needs of just ten hydrogen trucks, one hydrogen filling station can be operated in a way that is economically viable. In addition, by switching to hydrogen, trucks can lead to a much greater reduction in CO2 than passenger cars.

Critics complain that this technology is inefficient. When liquefying hydrogen, about one third of the energy is lost.
We don’t liquefy hydrogen, but compress the gas using a lot of pressure. As with any transformation, part of the energy is lost in the process. However, hydrogen can be stored in large amounts. When the demand for electricity is low, surplus energy can be used to fuel mobility later on. If this electricity from renewable sources were not used, 100 percent of the energy it contains would be lost. But nature provides this energy for free, so the question of the degree of efficiency is not really relevant for this type of mobility. On the contrary, the producers of sustainable electricity can operate their plants more economically. And unlike batteries, this mobility system has an excellent environmental balance sheet.

Does the new technology have the potential to completely replace diesel trucks in Switzerland?
The potential is there. But there is still a long way to go before we can completely replace combustion engines. Having said that, we are seeing developments around the world that are heading in that direction. It’s important that we now take the first steps towards a unique C02-free mobility system.

Images: Coop 

Innovation against climate change

Innovative solutions are needed to counteract climate change – whether in mobility, construction or finance. Banks and financial service providers can make a contribution by actively working to ensure that capital no longer flows into organizations or companies that damage the environment. LGT has excluded from its investment universe companies that are involved in the mining of coal for energy production. You can find more information on sustainability at LGT here

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