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Manufacturers race to deploy hydrogen fuel cell technology on commercial trucks

Daimler Truck and the Volvo Group have signed a joint venture agreement to develop and produce hydrogen fuel-cell systems for heavy-duty commercial applications.

The move has been in part prompted by the European “Green Deal” climate pact, a target of which is to reach zero net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. 

Both companies share the sustainable and carbon-neutral vision of the Green Deal, so have partnered to expedite the development of commercial fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).

The collaboration will also serve to reduce costs, making fuel cells more viable for both companies. The technology is of particular interest because fuel cells convert a fuel, usually hydrogen, into electricity through a chemical reaction – and they emit only water. 

Hydrogen can also be produced through renewable methods, making it environmentally friendly, and there are none of the charging-related issues associated with pure electric power.

That said, and as is pointed out by the joint venture itself, extensive development is required in areas such as establishing a useful hydrogen refuelling infrastructure.  

Daimler already has significant expertise with fuel cell technology and will shift all of its current related projects into the new joint venture.

Entwicklungstests an der Antriebseinheit des Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL in Kirchheim-Nabern; Gefrierstartversuche unter verschiedenen Neigungswinkeln des Aggregats. Development tests on the drive unit of the Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL in Kirchheim-Nabern; starting tests in freezing conditions with the drive unit tilted at different angles.

The Volvo Group, on the other hand, will acquire 50 per cent of the new joint venture for €0.6 billion ($A982 million). 

The companies are aiming to start series production of fuel cell-powered heavy-duty vehicles, designed for long-haul applications, in the second half of the decade.

Other potential applications may also be investigated by the joint venture.

Similarly, Toyota and Hino Motors – the commercial vehicle subsidiary of Toyota, which itself aims to reduce its CO2 emissions by 90 per cent by 2050 – have also started jointly developing a fuel cell-powered truck.

The company reports that heavy-duty trucks account for 60 per cent of total CO2 emissions in its home market of Japan, understandably making commercial vehicles a key focus.

The prototype being developed is based on the Hino Profia 25-tonne truck.  Thanks to two Toyota fuel cell stacks and a large 70Mpa hydrogen tank, it will have a range of some 600km – and it is hoped that future testing and development will lead to a practical application. 

No H2 for VW

Unlike manufacturers such as Honda and Toyota, Volkswagen has decided to focus its future powertrain development efforts primarily on battery electric power.

This has caused some consternation, as many perceive hydrogen fuel cells to be ideal for automotive applications. In response, Volkswagen has published an article – titled ‘Battery or fuel cell, that is the question’ – that details its reasoning for shunning FCEVs.

Predominately, it cites the total energy conversion inefficiency and high costs of FCEVs as major downsides. A battery-powered vehicle is claimed to be up to 80 per cent efficient, in terms of charging, storage and drive, whereas an FCEV is stated to offer a best of just 35 per cent. 

Couple that with additional complexity and cost, and contrast it with rapidly developing and comparatively straightforward pure electric power, and VW’s position is understandable.  

The company does concede, however, that fuel cells have great potential in heavy-duty transport, shipping and aviation applications. 

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