Benefits of hydrogen engines in transportation
Hydrogen is poised to take a meaningful role in the world’s sustainable energy landscape. No sector stands to benefit more from the use of green hydrogen as an energy carrier than the commercial transportation sector. When people think about hydrogen for commercial vehicle use, they often think of fuel cells battery electric. Internal combustion engines (ICE), however, are also a viable way to power a vehicle with hydrogen. Hydrogen ICE engines can achieve the same outcomes as fuel cells in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but with a smaller upfront investment. Engine familiarity can make switching to hydrogen engines easier. Internal combustion engines are more known to users and manufacturers than fuel cell vehicles.
Environmental benefits of hydrogen engines
Hydrogen vehicles—whether powered by a fuel cell or an internal combustion engine—do run with a zero-carbon emission fuel: hydrogen. But measuring CO2 generated at the well-to-wheel level is a little more complicated. It depends on the source of the hydrogen and how it’s made. Traditionally, hydrogen production comes from an industrially process known as steam methane reforming. Steam methane reforming causes significant quantities of CO2 to be released. Hydrogen produced in that manner is known as gray hydrogen and is used in large quantities in chemical and petrochemical industries.
Fortunately, there is a way to produce CO2-free hydrogen. It’s called electrolysis. The electrolysis process consists of breaking down water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity. CO2-free resources, like wind, water and solar, generate this electricity. Vehicles running on the fuel produced by this process—green hydrogen—are effectively CO2-free. These and more environmental benefits can be found in hydrogen engines.
Economic benefits of hydrogen engines
Hydrogen vehicles are great for the environment but owning and operating one can be expensive. The cost of hydrogen vehicles and the cost of green hydrogen, however, are decreasing rapidly. Hydrogen vehicles with an internal combustion engine could cost less than fuel cell vehicles. They may also be less expensive than a battery electric vehicle of similar size with an equivalent range. That’s because they are almost entirely identical in design and construction to regular gasoline and diesel vehicles. They can be mass produced using the same supply chains and the same factories. Therefore, hydrogen engines have the opportunity to benefit today’s emerging hydrogen economy.
The cost of green hydrogen production and purchasing is expected to continue to decrease. This will happen as electrolysis technology matures and government regulations and incentives kick on. In the long term, the cost of $1.5 per kilogram of hydrogen may be within reach. In the U.S., the Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Shot seeks to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $1 per 1 kilogram in 1 decade (“1 1 1”). In some areas, the cost of the hydrogen itself is already surprisingly low. In Norway, for example, recent green hydrogen production projects report costs as low as $3.5 to $4.5 per kilogram of hydrogen. This is equivalent to about $30 to $40 per million British thermal units (BTU)- less than the prices recently reached by natural gas on European markets. It is important to note that the pricing dynamics of hydrogen and natural gas vary across geographies.
In Europe, one regulation is aimed at manufacturers of medium and heavy-duty vehicles. It will require that manufacturers ensure that, by 2030, the trucks they sell emit 30% less CO2 than current trucks do. This regulation could motivate OEMs to actively support the deployment of hydrogen ICE. Hydrogen trucks will have to be priced to sell. Some OEMs can also expect to contribute to the buildup of a hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure. This may be comparable to the way that certain battery electric vehicle makers have been building charging stations along major roadways.
There are various hydrogen incentive and subsidy programs in the legislative and regulatory pipeline around of the world. For example, the European Union plans to update its minimum energy taxation requirements. The goal is to set the minimum tax applicable to low-carbon hydrogen sold. Motor fuel will be €0.15 per gigajoule, or about 2 cents per gallon gasoline equivalent. That’s about a hundred times smaller than the minimum fuel tax applicable to gasoline at? €10.75 per gigajoule, or about €1.3 per gallon. Such policies could rapidly narrow the cost gap between hydrogen and traditional fuels.
Hydrogen engines bring a familiar technology
Hydrogen engines are an ideal transitional technology towards carbon-free transportation. On paper, fuel cell vehicles can be more efficient than vehicles with an internal combustion engine. For most applications, the hydrogen fuel cells should therefore be preferable to hydrogen engines. In the long term, this is probably the case. In the near term, hydrogen engines are going to be the more practical option for many commercial vehicle fleets. Fuel cells technology is rapidly evolving, and fleet owners rarely want to take on risk associated with technology that is relatively new. Hydrogen internal combustion engines, in contrast, are based on a familiar technology known for its reliability. Hydrogen engines can also integrate into a vehicle with any change to the drivetrain, transmission or chassis. This makes the switch easier for owners. They can swap out engines and continue operating the vehicles that they know and trust.
Commercial vehicles with a hydrogen engine may still be relatively expensive, but they are one of the best options available to businesses who seek to reduce the emissions of their vehicle fleet. As hydrogen becomes more affordable and more available, the cost of operating a hydrogen vehicle will decrease. You can read more about how hydrogen engines work and the most frequently asked questions.
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