As the United States looks for ways to decarbonize its energy sources, some believe the nation’s abundant gas reserves – estimated at 495 trillion cubic feet in 2019 by the U.S. Crude Oil and Natural Gas Proved Reserves – can play an important role.
Using the steam methane reforming process, the numerous petrochemical plants along the Gulf Coast are the No. 1 producers of hydrogen in the nation. Because this hydrogen is produced with a CO2 byproduct, it is not considered a clean energy.
However, by integrating carbon capture, utilization and storage into the SMR process, a clean form of hydrogen could be produced and used for process heating, in gas turbines that generate electricity, in shipping vessels and in the petrochemicals industry for making “blue” ammonia, for example.
Yet some believe the most marketable point of entry for clean hydrogen is the medium- and heavy-trucking industry that is currently powered by diesel fuel.
Understanding that hydrogen is competitive with diesel, has lower emissions, a greater range, faster refueling times and can outperform current batteries, the fuel is ideal for high-traffic trucking corridors, said Andy Steinhubl, a former production operations engineer for ExxonMobil and member of the Advisory Board of Green Hydrogen International, a company developing green hydrogen projects globally.
“Tapping high-density trucking corridors minimizes the infrastructure required to achieve meaningful scale regionally, thereby improving the economics of market entry and expansion,” he said.
A Hunch About Hydrogen
Believing in the potential of hydrogen years ago, Michael Lewis, a senior engineering scientist at the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas at Austin, saw a role for the gas in the trucking industry and sought funds from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop zero-emissions, fuel cell hybrid electric delivery vans.
Lewis put together a team that included UPS, which agreed to provide the CEM and partners in the project with 17 delivery trucks – two for prototypes and an additional 15 for a working fleet if the project proved successful.
In 2014, the DOE awarded $3 million to the primary applicant, the Center for Transportation and the Environment.
While Texas is well known for hydrogen production, California was an obvious testing ground for the trucks, as the state has been operating hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for roughly 20 years.
The project, also funded by the California Energy Commission, California Air Resources Board and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, consisted of retrofitting medium-duty delivery trucks capable of carrying 6,000 pounds with fuel cell hybrid powertrains. The vehicles would be required to meet a range of 120 to 125 miles, satisfying 99 percent of UPS’ routes in California, compared to the 75-mile range of similar battery-powered vehicles.
“Hilly terrain and highway speed driving can add the need for more power,” Lewis explained. “Adding fuel cells extends the range to satisfy the majority of UPS’ routes.”
Brought on to help the CEM electrify the vehicles were Electric Vehicles International, Hydrogenics USA and Valence Technology (now Lithium Werks). When unforeseen circumstances caused EVI to leave the team, the opening fortuitously pointed Lewis toward Unique Energy Solutions, a New York-based company that had been working with UPS to electrify some of its vans.
When Lewis and the CTE extended an offer for UES to join the team, the company’s CEO, Joe Ambrosio, jumped at the chance.
“It was a very practical approach to a program. It was not going to be a science project,” Ambrosio said. “It was not about building the biggest fuel cell. It was about meeting a mission.”
Upon flying to Austin and seeing the CEM’s state-of-the-art, 140,000-square-foot facility, Ambrosio opted to make the CEM the project’s headquarters and recruited three undergraduate engineering students from UT.
The team looked to UES to coordinate the project’s moving parts. At the time, the batteries and fuel cells for the vehicles were located in Ireland. The diesel-powered engines in the UPS trucks needed to be removed and replaced with electric motors, batteries and fuel cells per UPS’ specifications, and special software was installed to tie the new parts together.
The batteries would store energy between the fuel cells and the motors, much like a Toyota Prius, Lewis explained, helping with transients (acceleration and deceleration) and reverting and storing braking energy.
While UES served as the integrator for the project, in the eyes of Ambrosio, “UT helped us to build a vehicle,” he said, praising the undergraduate students and their CEM advisors.
“The students gained a lot of experience, way above and beyond the typical student curriculum,” Lewis said. In fact, one went on to work for UES and another was hired by SpaceX.
On the Road
In 2017, the team built a prototype for UPS that was tested in Sacramento, Calif. for a year. It exceeded the goal range at 126 miles. (Later, UES reworked the vehicle powertrain layout and implemented a new battery chemistry, making it possible to increase the range of the delivery trucks to 150 miles.)
An issue with a hydrogen fueling station sent the vehicle to Gardena, Calif. After the team made several tweaks to the prototype requested by UPS, UPS requested a fleet of 15 vehicles. After being manufactured in California, they are expected to be on the road in early 2022.
At the time of the prototype test, Mark Wallace, UPS’ senior vice president of Global Engineering and Sustainability, noted that, “This project is an essential step to test the zero tailpipe emissions technology and vehicles on the road for UPS and the transportation industry.”
“Heavy duty trucking is a great opportunity and a near-term opportunity for hydrogen,” Lewis added. “We will have to see where battery and fuel cell technologies go. Batteries keep getting better and better, but they are not perfect yet. Fuel cells are still expensive. All it will take is another breakthrough in battery technology to make fuel cells obsolete. But hydrogen represents a unique opportunity to decarbonize many sectors that would be hard to electrify as it is today with current batteries.”
All Eyes on Trucking
The U.S. government has provided tens of millions of dollars in funding for projects to advance next-generation clean hydrogen technologies, and $400 million in hydrogen-related projects has been requested in the president’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget, up from $285 million in FY 2021.
Realizing the Gulf Coast’s potential, the DOE, through its H2@Scale initiative, invested $5.4 million in 2020 in an additional project at UT to better understand the potential for integrating hydrogen with multiple platforms throughout the economy, including at the Port of Houston.
“Heavy trucking should be an initial priority to investigate in Texas,” said Steinhubl, who also serves as chair of the Center for Houston’s Future,a nonprofit organization that addresses matters of high importance to the Greater Houston region.
“Trucking requires limited new infrastructure to utilize hydrogen as a fuel, and hydrogen fuel competes with relatively expensive and relatively higher-emitting diesel fuel,” he added.
Alan Lloyd, a research associate at the CEM and former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, said that if oil and gas companies are interested in the business of electrification using hydrogen, fuel cells are key.
“People trained in oil and gas are very well suited for applying hydrogen and using their skills in the Houston economy and decarbonization machine,” he said. “Texas is very well suited for that.”
When Steinhubl looks at the Port of Houston, the nation’s No. 1 port in total foreign and domestic waterborne tonnage, he sees a major trucking hub in an ideal location – sitting among a sea of petrochemical plants, existing CCUS infrastructure, and the area’s unique geological salt domes that serve as mass hydrogen subsurface storage.
The Center for Houston’s Future has applied for funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Build Back Better initiative to develop and ultimately activate a hydrogen hub in Houston that would include a hydrogen value chain for heavy trucking.
Pointing out that companies such as Nikola, Toyota and Hyundai are developing and piloting the manufacturing of hydrogen fuel cell trucks, and that shippers are increasingly looking to reduce emissions, Steinhubl said, “there is promise that this could be an early new hydrogen market in Texas.”
“When it comes to decarbonization on a large scale,” Lewis said, “I feel that hydrogen has a large role to play.”