While electric vans are becoming more popular, compromising range and payload is still a challenge for fleets with long hauls. Could one of the most abundant elements on Earth be a promising alternative for commercial vehicles?
Hydrogen fuel cells
Essentially, a hydrogen fuel cell is a miniature power plant, which generates electricity by chemically combining hydrogen from a tank and oxygen from the air. This form of energy is very clean, with only electricity, heat, and water as products and by-products.
From transportation to emergency backup power, fuel cells have a wide range of applications. They can power systems as large as a power plant or as small as a laptop.
How does a hydrogen vehicle work?
Hydrogen fuel tank - hydrogen is stored at high pressure in on-board tanks and then delivered into the fuel cell
Fuel cell - chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen generates water and energy, which can be harnessed as electricity
Air intake - air is drawn in through the air intake to mix with hydrogen in the fuel cell
Vehicle systems - electricity generated from the fuel cell is harnessed to power the vehicle's systems, converting electrical energy to mechanical
Electric drive units - power is delivered to the EDUs, which drive the vehicle's wheels and control acceleration and braking
Battery - delivers high power for short intervals to support the fuel cell, and allows braking energy to be recaptured
Exhaust - the only emission from the entire process is pure water from the chemical reaction in the fuel cell
Is hydrogen a safe fuel?
It's at least as safe as any other fuel. The tanks are extremely strong, and there are pressure valves all over the place that can shut off the fuel system if a leak is detected. Composite material is used in the tanks, which when impacted tends to splinter open rather than break at a specific point. It allows for the hydrogen to leak out slowly instead of rupturing a metal tank.
In the event that hydrogen leaks, it would disperse into the air. Fuels such as petrol and diesel usually lie around in huge pools on the ground - petrol, in particular, being dangerous due to its high flammability.
Battery electric vs fuel cell
Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) use electricity to power the electric motor, just like any other electric vehicle. FCEVs differ from other electric vehicles in that they generate electricity using a fuel cell, powered by hydrogen instead of a battery. Manufacturers determine the power of a vehicle by the size of the electric motor(s) that receive electric power from an appropriately sized fuel cell and battery combination. It is possible to design an FCEV with a plug-in charging capability, but for most FCEVs today, the battery is used to store braking energy, provide extra power during short acceleration periods, and smooth the power delivered by the fuel cell with the option to idle or shut it off during low power demands. Hydrogen fuel tanks determine the amount of energy stored onboard. It differs from an all-electric vehicle, where the amount of power and energy available are both closely related to the battery size.
What are the potential benefits of using fuel cells in electric vans?
Both Hyundai and Toyota already sell fuel cell cars in the UK, but they could also prove useful as diesel alternatives for long-range, high-mileage vans.
Supporters of hydrogen fuel cells claim that they are as flexible as fossils and since hydrogen tanks can be filled in just a few minutes, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are actually more convenient than battery-electric ones. By using hydrogen fuel cells, commercial vehicles would be able to generate their own power while driving, eliminating range anxiety.
Compared to traditional combustion-based technologies, fuel cells are more efficient. Hydrogen fuel cells emit only water, so no carbon dioxide or other pollutants are released into the atmosphere. This would allow operators to make their fleets more carbon-efficient without payload loss caused by carrying heavy, long-range batteries.
Furthermore, fuel cells are quiet during operation due to the fact that they have fewer moving parts than combustion technologies. As a result, they provide the same smooth, near-silent driving experience as battery-electric vans.
What are the chances of hydrogen vans arriving in the UK soon?
Commercial hydrogen vans are already being developed by several manufacturers as a complementary technology to battery-electric vehicles.
As part of its market entry strategy, Stellantis plans to offer hydrogen-powered versions of its medium vans: Peugeot e-Expert, Citroen e-Dispatch and Vauxhall e-Vivaro, currently available only as battery-electric models. Refuelling these hydrogen vans will take just 3 minutes while they'll provide a driving range of 250 miles. An additional power source will be included in the form of a mains-rechargeable battery. Small-scale production of the vans began in France and Germany last year for selected customers. Vauxhall confirmed that the Vivaro hydrogen van will go on sale in the UK in 2023 offering a 1,100kg payload.
Renault plans to start production of a hydrogen fuel van in 2022. The van will be based on the Master platform and will be available as a panel van, minibus, and chassis cab for conversion. With a range of more than 300 miles, the vehicles are being co-developed as part of a joint venture with fuel cell specialist Plug Power. According to the company, refuelling takes no longer than five minutes, similar to what is expected for combustion-powered vehicles today. Hydrogen and refuelling equipment will be provided to fleet customers to overcome infrastructure concerns.
Jaguar Land Rover has been working on a hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric Defender. The testing has already begun, but the production timeline has not yet been announced. The company says it will be a key component of the future powertrain mix, preserving its capability to tow and go off-road without compromising range or refuelling times. The FCEV concept is part of Jaguar Land Rover's ambition to achieve zero tailpipe emissions by 2036 and net-zero carbon emissions across the company's supply chain, products, and operations by 2039.
Innervated Vehicle Engineering (IVe) recently announced plans to build the first UK fully recyclable hydrogen fuel cell van. Fleets will be able to take advantage of IVe's low-cost, emissions-free IndiGo, which can carry a payload of 1.5 tonnes and travel over 370 miles. It is expected that the first pre-series models will be available in September 2023, followed by the first production models in early 2024.
There have been concepts from other manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, too. We will keep you updated on this.
Does the UK government support hydrogen technology?
Yes, hydrogen is back on the government's radar.
Both commercial vehicles and passenger cars are subject to environmental pressure. By 2030, vehicles will have to offer a "significant electric range" in order to be sold in the UK, and five years after that they will have to be fully electric. Meanwhile, Euro 7 emissions standards are expected to set even stricter limits for diesel engines in 2025, as well as require expensive after-treatment technologies for the next generation of vans. It’s a big change for commercial vehicles.
Despite being in its infancy, the FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle) and hydrogen refuelling market is set to grow in the UK. Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out plans to accelerate production of low-carbon hydrogen – from electrolysis, using renewable electricity – as part of the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. Investments of up to half a billion pounds are earmarked for hydrogen projects by 2030, with ambitions to use it for heating homes and decarbonising the transport sector, including road transport. One of the world’s most ample elements could help solve some of transport’s biggest challenges.
This news must be what you've been looking for if range and payload limits prevent you from making the switch to an electric van. In the meantime, be sure to check our current offers.
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