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Hydrogen Fuels usage in industrial vehicles

Industrial vehicles play a significant part not just in adding to global carbon emissions, but also air pollution within cities. They might not be the first point of call when considering hydrogen power in vehicles, but diesel-powered construction equipment is the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in the construction industry and with a push towards clean-air cities, without an alternative, diesel-powered industrial vehicles might be the last bastion of fossil fuel usage within cities that are adopting clean-air policies.

Battery-powered (or electrical) industrial vehicles do exist, and some companies, including Volvo and Hitachi, have made moves towards zero-emission vehicles, with Hitachi creating vehicles designed to plug directly into mains wires to keep fully charged at all times. But this doesn’t factor in that diesel does go a lot further on a construction site than just powering the vehicles. From generators, to cement mixers, and a variety of tools, diesel supplies a lot more power than you might think and it’s this that has encouraged JCB to move towards hydrogen power.

Unlike with battery electric, hydrogen fuel allows for the adaptation of current internal combustion engines in both vehicles and equipment to use hydrogen fuel. This is much easier than requiring mains access or specific recharging stations to power vehicles, batteries, and equipment.

Where construction vehicles differ from passenger and commercial vehicles is that they won’t require refuelling stations across the country to supply them. Currently, industrial vehicles are fuelled by on-site tanks of diesel and rarely will use fuel stations to fuel their vehicles. Hydrogen would allow for a similar function, as the fuel can be brought directly to farms or job sites and stored in tanks on-site in the same way.

This isn’t without its issues, however. Storing hydrogen as a liquid requires a huge amount energy to keep it cold enough, and storing hydrogen as a gas means that you need a lot more space than you would with diesel or petrol. On some build sites, especially in urban areas, it might be completely impossible to fit storage large enough for hydrogen gas and factoring in delivery time might make it more difficult than just using a different fuel or energy source.

It’s likely that rural job sites and agriculture that are looking to lower their emissions will benefit massively from wider adoption of hydrogen fuel. Agriculture’s leading cause of CO₂ emissions is fossil fuel usage. And though those emissions only make up 1.7% of the UK’s overall carbon emissions, hydrogen could all but eliminate that should it become more easily available to your average farmer or construction business.

When it comes to alternative fuels, hydrogen also wins out over BEVs when it comes to recharging times. With hydrogen, you can refuel a vehicle or piece of equipment in minutes or seconds, while with BEVs they need to be plugged in for hours to return to full charge. If a vehicle is in usage for a full day, with BEVs you’re likely required to recharge it overnight after a few hours of use, while with hydrogen, worksites won’t have to factor in refuelling times so work can remain constant should it need to.

So why has only one major company made strides towards hydrogen?

Currently, JCB leads the potential market shift, and with other smaller startups following suit, it’s difficult to say where hydrogen will be in the industrial vehicle space. Knowing that the priority in the next few years will be clean-air cities means that diesel will likely begin to see an ever-decreasing usage if not be forced out entirely. JCB have shifted a portion of their manufacturing to allow for their once-diesel engines to now use hydrogen. Though Hydrogen internal combustion engines aren’t as fuel efficient as hydrogen-powered fuel cells, it is far cheaper for manufacturers and therefore customers to adapt existing technology to fit hydrogen rather than create entirely new systems and processes to support the creation of hydrogen vehicles.

Even though hydrogen combustion engines are cheaper than the hydrogen-powered alternative, fuel cells, the cost of replacing industrial vehicles will play as big a factor as the lack of supporting infrastructure in terms of putting companies off using hydrogen vehicles. Governments will have to step in to support this shift should they want to see a move towards net-zero.

Unfortunately, the exact same problem exists with battery-electric industrial vehicles. A market will likely open up allowing for further demand for zero-emission industrial vehicles, but it will only come as local councils and governments introduce laws disallowing fossil fuel vehicles and equipment.

Unlike commercial and passenger vehicles, and even planes and boats, industrial vehicles and equipment seems ripe for further adoption of hydrogen. It will only be a matter of time before manufacturers begin to move towards alternative fuel sources, and for industrial vehicles, the step towards hydrogen is much shorter than the leap required to begin producing battery-electric industrial vehicles.

If you’d like to see more about the current state of hydrogen as a fuel source, do click the link and view our piece Hydrogen: The Future of Fuel. It discusses hydrogen generation, the science behind it, the existing infrastructure and the plans to expand its usage across the automotive space.