Hydrogen fuel cells the right direction for Alberta’s trucking industry

EDMONTON, Alta. – Alberta is the perfect place to test, produce, and operate trucks that run on a hydrogen fuel cell, according to one of the lead researchers involved in the Alberta Zero-Emissions Truck Electrification Collaboration (AZETEC). Speaking to attendees during the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada (PMTC) Western Education Seminar in Edmonton, Alta., Oct.

1, Jessica Lof, research lead for the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research at the University of Calgary, said the AZETEC project will help push the province toward a goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80% by 2050. But Lof added that any attempt at this goal must also be technically, financially, socially, and economically credible if it’s to be a success – something she believes the use of hydrogen fuel cells in trucks can accomplish.

“These changes need to bring more benefits than just reducing our greenhouse gas emissions,” said Lof, adding that with recent technology advancements in the industry, “it’s never been so cool to be part of trucking.” Lof said hydrogen fuel cell electric powertrains offer the transportation sector in Alberta several advantages over other alternative forms of power, such as battery electric, hydrogen drive, and the common internal combustion engine. Overall, Lof said diesel engines have a 35% efficiency rating.

Hydrogen drive is 43% efficient, battery electric is 68%, and hydrogen fuel cell electric offers 52% efficiency. But with battery electric’s limited range, heavy weight, and long charging times, Lof said the hydrogen fuel cell is the way to go for Alberta, and efficiency is not the only factor to consider. Lof said Alberta is capable of producing hydrogen at an extremely low cost from a variety of sources, including natural gas, coal, bitumen, and wind power.

She also said the province already has the technical expertise to stay in the transportation fuel business for the foreseeable future. “Alberta has all the ingredients to be successful,” said Lof, adding that 77% of the province’s oil supply already goes toward the transportation sector, and efforts to move to hydrogen would help continue Alberta’s dominance in that sector. Funding for the £15-million AZETEC project was announced in March, which includes £7.3 million from Emissions Reduction Alberta.

The effort aims to design and manufacture hydrogen fuel cell electric hybrid heavy-duty trucks with extended range. Bison Transport and Trimac Transportation will operate the trucks, which will be 64-ton B-train tractor-trailers capable of traveling up to 700 km before needing to refuel, and will emit zero emissions from the tailpipe, with only water being expelled. Though Lof admitted that production of hydrogen is not zero-emissions, the elimination of tailpipe emissions does result in a 30% reduction in GHGs compared to the operation of diesel trucks.

Freightliner donated two of its gliders for the project, which are currently being worked on to operate using a hydrogen fuel cell. Once the trucks are ready and have gone through safety tests, they will move freight between Sherwood Park and Calgary from January 2021 to June 2022. The trucks will be equipped with a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell power generation system that will generate electricity from hydrogen – 100 kg of hydrogen will be put on each truck.

Lof said there are several issues the trucking industry is trying to address with this project, including high GHG emissions, low profit margins, high cost of diesel engine maintenance, and a labor shortage.

Lof and her team are now exploring the idea of how to expand this two-truck experiment into something much bigger, possibly growing to thousands of trucks, which could be manufacture in Alberta where there is an abundance of potential when it comes to hydrogen fuel production – Edmonton is one of the largest hydrogen fuel producers in North America, and production is probable in other locations like Medicine Hat, Fort McMurray, and Grande Prairie.

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