“Net Zero” Strategy: Tapping Hydrogen for Sustainable Electric Power and Transportation

The following is an edited talk given by David Blekhman, PhD, Professor for Sustainable Energy and Transportation, who holds the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Alternative Energy at California State University Los Angeles, California, USA, at the 28th International Conference for the Unity of the Sciences, in April 2022.

A combination of climate change concerns and attempts to restart the economy after COVID-19 have led to exciting developments around hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. The hydrogen economy is far more universal than the economy based on lithium batteries because few countries and companies have access to mining and processing of lithium into battery electrode materials.

Many countries and industries can economically benefit from working in the hydrogen space, which is growing from individual deployments to bigger concepts like hydrogen hubs or valleys. For example, Cal State’s Los Angeles hub includes such sustainable technologies as solar photovoltaics (PV) installation, robust electric vehicle (EV) charging, a fleet of fuel cell vehicles, and a Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility. In similar combinations, the concept will continue to repeat in various forms and sizes tapping hydrogen for electric power and transportation.

Fuel Cells Are Electrochemical Generators

Fuel cells are electrochemical generators that use fuel and oxidizer to produce electricity. Their advantage is that, unlike combustion engines, conversion to electricity is direct and at a higher efficiency than in its thermo-mechanical counterparts. Most fuel cells today concentrate on proton exchange membrane fuel cells utilizing hydrogen for fuel and oxygen from the air as an oxidizer. Conveniently, in addition to electricity, the only other emissions are pure water and heat that are appropriately managed.

The alkaline fuel cell system as used on the space shuttles.  © Smithsonian Institution, Science Service Historical Images Collection
The alkaline fuel cell system as used on the space shuttles. © Smithsonian Institution, Science Service Historical Images Collection

While the history of hydrogen and fuel cells is 180 years old, the more recent practical application was implemented for space exploration in the Apollo (1966) and then in Space Shuttle (alkaline fuel cells) programs (1981-2011). The advantage of fuel cells was also apparent for the same reasons they are beneficial now: For the long haul, it is a much lighter system than batteries. The Space Shuttle program utilized three 7-kW fuel cells in each shuttle. Systems up to 10 kW can be used in homes, forklifts, or portable generators. New systems have grown to 100 or 200 kW per fuel cell stack and can be chained to any power required.

Cal State LA Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility

The Cal State LA Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility is the world’s largest campus-based, on-site hydrogen generation station. It uses electricity and water to produce 60 kg/day of hydrogen, which is sufficient to fuel up to twenty passenger vehicles per day. Its Grand Opening was celebrated on May 7, 2014, and it has been providing motorists with hydrogen ever since.

While operating as a fueling facility, the goal is to conduct applied research, workforce training, and public outreach. Over the years, the facility has hosted more than 10,000 visitors, of which 85% were K-12 and college students, and the rest were industry and government professionals.

Accurate Hydrogen Fuel Metering

In November 2014, the Cal State LA facility became the first in the world to demonstrate accurate metering to approve the sale of hydrogen by the kilogram directly to fueling customers. This achievement had a further national impact, as the National Institute of Standard and Technology adopted new hydrogen meter accuracy requirements informed by this experience.

(A Cal State LA student created a fantastic 3-min video introducing Cal State LA Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility that can be found on YouTube. More information can be found at www.calstatela.edu/ecst/h2station)

In February 2019, Cal State LA unveiled a fleet of zero-emission fuel cell Hyundai Tucson vehicles for use by the university community in an urban, shared-mobility model. Before COVID-19, students and faculty used the service to drive emission-free vehicles free for the first two hours. The fleet of eighteen vehicles had six vehicles deployed in serving Parking and Transportation Department needs and twelve vehicles dedicated to shared mobility service. In the aftermath, the Waive company that managed the program did not survive the pandemic. Eleven vehicles were returned to the manufacturer while the remaining seven continue to serve campus needs. Cal State LA plans to restart some of the shared mobility activities with fuel cell vehicles later in 2022 with another provider.

Concepts for the Hydrogen Integrated Economy Developed by Cal State LA students. As a transportation fuel, hydrogen can power passenger vehicles, buses, trucks, rail, ships, aviation, and more.
Concepts for the Hydrogen Integrated Economy Developed by Cal State LA students. As a transportation fuel, hydrogen can power passenger vehicles, buses, trucks, rail, ships, aviation, and more. ©Cal State LA

California — Trendsetter in Clean Transportation

California has been the trendsetter in clean, sustainable transportation around the world, compelling the mighty and powerful automotive companies to deploy emission-free vehicles. Currently, California boasts the largest fleet of hydrogen-powered vehicles that exceed 10,000 cars on the road. While this is not a large number, it is a start that allows us to break the everlasting chicken-or-egg conundrum. Car manufacturers provide vehicles, and the state takes responsibility for the hydrogen infrastructure. Perhaps, we might see up to 50,000 fuel cell vehicles in a few years.

Hydrogen Fueling Stations

Cal State LA Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility.  ©Cal State LA
Cal State LA Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility. ©Cal State LA

California has the most operating public hydrogen stations in the US—forty-nine—with 124 more on the way. [See Stations Map | California Fuel Cell Partnership (cafcp.org)] The development process was initially proposed as a cluster model where several stations would be nearby and supporting each other during downtime. The newer models emphasize major corridors with larger stations over 1,000 kg/day retail and smaller, backup stations with about 400 kg/day. In 2020, California awarded a more than 120-station network to be built by three companies in three batches over time. [See: California Hydrogen Station Race Winners: First Element, Equilon, and Iwatani.] Some companies are trying to develop independent hydrogen networks, called Hub and Spoke, with private funding especially for the heavy-duty transport. Where the hub produces hydrogen, it fuels trucks and vehicles on location and delivers hydrogen to nearby stations.

Trucks and Buses

There are now thousands of fuel cell buses deployed around the world. Multiple manufacturers can integrate fuel cells into their coaches. Fuel cell buses are running in London. Canada was also successful in demonstrating fuel cell buses during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Over the years, there have been attempts to launch fuel cell trucks. The early market introductions have been supported by newcomers like Toyota, Hyundai, Refire, Hyzon, Gaussin, and others. Volvo and Daimler formed an alliance to produce their own trucks. [See: Volvo’s Fuel Cell Truck Alliance With Daimler Is a Return to the Hydrogen Bandwagon.]

Hyundai has come out with several projects that deploy hydrogen trucks. Their project in Switzerland, with seven fuel cell trucks, shows their excellent performance in mountainous regions, where their battery counterparts would have had challenging times climbing those peaks over a distance. Thirty more trucks will be coming to Northern California for Glovis America, a logistics service provider, operating at the Port of Oakland. These trucks are equipped with 700 bar storage, allowing them a 500-mile range.

Gaussin Hydrogen Racing Truck.  ©Cal State LA
Gaussin Hydrogen Racing Truck. ©Cal State LA

Gaussin is a French company that manufactures warehouse and port logistics electric and fuel cell vehicles. It is ambitious and bold. Just to prove their confidence in fuel cells, in less than one year they put together the very first in the world hydrogen racing truck to compete in the 2022 Dakar Rally. The Gaussin team was successful in completing all stages of the race. (More information about Gaussin’s history, aspirations and products can be found in the article Dakar Rally to See Its First Hydrogen Truck Entry by Gaussin in Partnership With Aramco.)

Locomotive and Trains

A Colorado-based company, Vehicle Projects, was involved in several innovative heavy duty hydrogen projects in the early years of hydrogen. One of them was a switch locomotive by BSNF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway) at its switchyard in the city of Commerce, demonstrated in 2011. The 127-ton locomotive allows transients above 1 MW, while the 240 kW Ballard PEM fuel cell continuously recharged them. Hydrogen storage was 70 kg at 350 bar. The locomotive demonstrated the demanding switching-shunting for up to ten hours per fueling.

Switch locomotive by BSNF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway).  ©Vehicle Projects
Switch locomotive by BSNF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway). ©Vehicle Projects

Light rail has also been very actively pursued by several manufacturers. Fuel cell trains provide convenient, zero-emissions transport without the hassle of costly electrification and thus have a strong advantage, as they require the hydrogen infrastructure only at a few refueling points.