Heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell trucks a waste of energy and money

FCEV Heavy truck: PEM hydrogen fuel cell on-board reforming. U.S. Department of Energy Vehicle Technologies Program, Estimated for 2020. Source (DOE 2011).

Figure 1. FCEV Heavy truck: PEM hydrogen fuel cell on-board reforming. U.S. Department of Energy Vehicle Technologies Program, Estimated for 2020. Source (DOE 2011).

Preface.  Hydrogen fuel cell trucks are incredibly inefficient. Turning hydrogen back into electricity with a fuel cell is only 24.7 % efficient (.84 * .67 * .54 * .84 * .97) as shown in figure 1. There are multiple stages where energy is lost due to inefficiencies at each step: Natural gas upstream and liquefaction, hydrogen on-board reforming, fuel cell efficiency, electric motor and drive-train losses, and aerodynamic/rolling resistance.

Since fuel cell electric trucks are terrible at acceleration, they always have a second propulsion system, usually a battery, making them orders of magnitude more expensive than an equivalent diesel truck, $1,300,000 versus $100,000 respectively.

Hydrogen is not a renewable, since 96% of hydrogen is made from natural gas using natural gas, but at least it can be made cheaply around the clock that way.

Hydrogen generated with solar power could only be made 10 to 25% of the time (the capacity factor) when the sun is up, and electrolysis of water is so expensive it is only made for applications that require extremely pure hydrogen, mainly NASA.  The amount of space rebuildable contraptions like solar and wind take up is a problem as well. To use wind power to produce 700 Terrawatt hours of hydrogen would require wind turbines taking up 40,154 square miles (Ford 2020).

Hydrogen pipelines are too expensive to build at length, since they are corroded and embrittled by hydrogen.  Yet delivery would require a $250,000 canister truck weighing 88,000 pounds (40,000 kg) delivering a paltry 880 (400 kg) of fuel, enough for 60 cars and just a few trucks. A diesel truck can carry 10,000 gallons of gas, enough to fill 800 cars. The hydrogen delivery truck cannibalize much of its energy: over a distance of 150 miles, it will burn the equivalent of 20% of the usable energy in the hydrogen it is delivering (Romm 2005).

Trucks don’t use hydrogen tanks because they take up 10% of payload weight (DOE 2011), or fuel cells, because the best only last 2500 hours but need to keep on going at least 14,560 hours in long-haul trucks and 10,400 in distribution trucks (den Boer 2013).

For a full discussion of why hydrogen will not solve our problems, see my post Hydrogen, the Homeopathic Energy Crisis Remedy and other related articles listed at the end.

Alice Friedemann  www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


ARB. November 2015. Medium- and heavy-duty fuel cell electric vehicles. Air Resources Board, California Environmental Protection Agency.

Medium- and heavy-duty Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV) are far from being commercial due to many barriers:

  1. Vehicle cost (bus): $1,300,000
  2. Vehicle cost (truck): even higher due to heavier payloads
  3. Cost of hydrogen fuel
  4. Cost of fuel cell power plant. At $3,000/kW for a 150 kW fuel cell system, the power plant cost is $450,000
  5. Cost of 40-50 kg fuel tank, frame, and mounting system is $100,000
  6. Service station costs of $5,000,000 and O&M costs of $200,000/year
  7. Distribution of hydrogen fuel (corrodes pipes, distributed by diesel-burning trucks now)
  8. More frequent fueling (the fueling infrastructure for FCEV medium and heavy-duty trucks is not known since there aren’t any commercial MD/HD trucks yet)
  9. Lack of hydrogen service stations
  10. Significantly higher costs for FCEV than diesel trucks
  11. Hydrogen tanks weigh a lot
  12. Hydrogen tanks take up a lot of space
  13. Tank weight and size reduce range
  14. Hydrogen is more expensive than diesel fuel
  15. The only public hydrogen stations in California are for light duty cars. Because of the high pressure at which they dispense hydrogen, as well as different fueling protocols and nozzles, they are not compatible for use with current fueling protocols for medium- or heavy-duty vehicles.
  16. FCEV can’t handle acceleration well so there is always a 2nd propulsion system like batteries, which adds to their cost
  17. Tanks can go on the roof of buses, but trucks do not have enough space for a tank (though there is room for the fuel cell which is roughly equal to a conventional diesel engine with a similar power rating)
  18. Only PEM fuel cells with low operating temperatures, high power density, and so on are suitable, but they are too fragile to endure the rough ride of a truck
  19. FCEV use too much platinum metal group elements which are limited and expensive

What is an FCEV? A FCEV is a vehicle with a fuel cell system that generates electricity to propel the vehicle and to power auxiliary equipment. Hydrogen fuel is consumed in the fuel cell stack to produce electricity, heat, and water vapor—no harmful pollutants are emitted from the vehicle. FCEVs are typically configured in a series hybrid design where the fuel cell is paired with a battery storage system. Together, the fuel cell and battery systems work to meet performance, range, efficiency, and other vehicle manufacturer goals. FCEVs have higher efficiencies, quieter operation, comparable range between fill-up, and similar performance to conventional vehicles.

Most suitable applications.  Vehicles that are centrally fueled, operated, and maintained, returning to the same base at the end of the day.

NRC. 2003. Energy and Transportation: Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century. National Research Council

Excerpts about hydrogen fuel cells:

The most important part of a fuel cell is the membrane, which must be an ion conductor, an electronic insulator, an impermeable gas barrier and also possess good mechanical strength. However, the key issues in making a practical fuel cell are non-electrochemical. These include the acts of delivering the gases to the fuel cell membrane, removing the water, removing the heat from around the system, and controlling humidity and pressurization of gases. There are still many challenges for electrochemists, chemists, and chemical engineers. For example, a membrane that is more tolerant of environmental conditions for gases of varying pressures will allow for the elimination of various system components, which can be very expensive due to their use of stainless steel. The technical challenge is in fabricating a membrane to be thin enough so that the hydrogen side of the gas supply does not need to be humidified. However, as membranes get thinner, reliability over long periods of time becomes an issue due to faradaic losses. If the membrane is too thick, additional components must be added to humidify the hydrogen.

In a vehicle fuel cell stack, which has over 400 cells in series, the situation is even more complicated. Well over 90% of fuel cell industry funds are not spent on the membrane but on moving these gases in and out of the fuel cell stack, managing the system, and creating the environment where the membrane can do its job. Fuel cell research, however, is mainly performed in a lab where gases are supplied at exactly the right humidity, pressures, and so on. The actual commercial problem, development of a fuel-cell-powered vehicle that has a life of 15 years and 150,000 miles under terrible external environmental conditions, has not been approached.

Tolerances are also not well understood. A fuel cell stack with over 400 cells operating in this environment contains sealant, which is literally miles long. Seals will start to fail after the fuel cell is bumped and jostled on the highway and while temperature shifts between hot and cold, and the cell is turned off and on. With zero tolerance for safety failures, hydrogen leaks cannot occur with these vehicles. Additionally, every cell has to be identical or the system cannot be managed. Unfortunately, that kind of tolerance control is not yet available.

An ideal fuel cell system will have minimal components outside of the stack and will operate using ambient, unhumidified hydrogen. Although fuel cells are very efficient, they do not release much heat through the exhaust. Even though they generate less heat than an internal combustion engine, the system requires the addition of cooling components due to the generated heat in the cooling stack. However, if this stack can generate less heat, then radiators, pumps, and coolant will not be required.

The standard for a modern vehicle requires it to start within 2 seconds at worst. A fuel cell starts well within 1 second. However, fuel cells, including hydrogen fuel cells, do not operate well at subfreezing temperatures. This is because fuel cells are basically a liquid interface device and need liquid-phase water to operate. Running the system under the conditions of a highway environment is possible, but the current cost is too great for commercialization.

Practical use of hydrogen in vehicles may never happen until there is a better method to store hydrogen, especially since onboard reforming of hydrogen at a reasonable cost may not be a possibility.

The use of hydrogen requires additional infrastructure for production and transportation. One method is to use electrical energy to produce hydrogen, but power grids are very inefficient. Another is the use of a natural gas pipeline, which is also wasteful since it involves the liquefying and re-evaporation of gases.

End note: Sir William Robert Grove invented the hydrogen fuel cell or “gas battery” in the 1840s. The first practical fuel cells were not built until the Gemini and Apollo space programs in the 1960s and are still used in space today. The difference between building a successful fuel cell and a commercially successful fuel cell, however, is the same difference between putting a man on the moon and putting 10,000 men on the moon every day at an affordable price.  We’re running out of time to invent a good hydrogen fuel cell, they’ve been around 180 years, and peak oil may have occurred in 2018 (Patterson 2019).

Related Articles


Calstart. 2013. I-710 project zero-emission truck commercialization study. Calstart for Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. 4.7.

den Boer, E. et al. 2013. Zero emissions trucks. Delft.

DOE. 2011. Advanced technologies for high efficiency clean vehicles. Vehicle Technologies Program. Washington DC: United States Department of Energy.

Ford, J. 2020.  The world must look beyond sun snd wind for hydrogen. We need lots of the gas, and cheaply, if it is to help replace liquid carbon fuels. Financial times

ICCT. July 2013. Zero emissions trucks. An overview of state-of-the-art technologies and their potential. International Council for Clean Transportation.

Patterson, R. 2019. Was 2018 the peak for crude oil production? oilprice.com

Romm, J. J. 2005. The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate. Island Press.

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3 Responses to Heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell trucks a waste of energy and money

  1. KubotaChang says:

    The vehicles seen in the clip are configured to be the least powerful, just to make them able costing on non steep roads – which makes us laugh.

    Communities using them willingly accept that a great deal of capable hands need to be put behind them.

    The point is that the affordable, locally made vehicles can truck many folds bigger loads than their own weight for minimal fuel and repairs.

    This class of extreme humans-assisted efficiency will outlast all Hydrogen, EV, SUV, Autonomus and computerised forms of Auto transportation over time – while diesel for the masses is still around.

    • susan butler says:

      Might as well get a horse. Self-repairs, uses renewal fuel, and yields both meat and fertilizer, besides working –and smells better.

  2. Mark says:

    It seems that CA is going to try to force innovation to happen. Lets hope that we don’t have another diesel gate, MTBE disaster, or say another Crescent Dunes commercialization fiasco.