7 common questions about hydrogen trucks

Daniel Bergstrand
Technology & Innovation Sustainability Alternative fuels
Daniel Bergstrand
Product Manager H2-ICE & Fuel Cells
Photo: Marc Gschwender

The increased focus on the shift towards sustainable energy sources in the trucking industry has raised interest in hydrogen trucks. But how do they work, when are they going to be available, and should you choose a battery or hydrogen-powered truck? Here you can find the answers to these questions, and more.

The most well-known way to utilize hydrogen in a vehicle is through fuel cells. The technology can be dated back to the 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1932, that the first fuel cell could be used in practical applications. Since the 1960s fuel cells have been used to power spacecrafts.

In addition to fuel cells there’s also the possibility to utilize hydrogen directly in a combustion engine. Depending on the cost and availability of hydrogen from renewable sources, hydrogen combustion engines have the potential to offer a competitive total cost of ownership and could be a complement to other technologies.

The potential of hydrogen is growing since there’s a global push to decarbonize the transport industry. This, along with the falling cost of renewables and more detailed strategies from governments around the world to keep developing the technology.

Emitting only water vapor, hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric trucks will be an important part of Volvo Trucks’ zero exhaust emission product portfolio. During 2023, they were being test-driven on public roads.

Here are the answers to some of the most common questions about hydrogen trucks:

1. What is hydrogen and how is it being produced?

Hydrogen (H2) is a chemical element that can be used to store and deliver energy. There are many ways to produce hydrogen and it needs a primary source of energy to be produced. The most common way to produce hydrogen today is from natural gas using Steam methane reforming (SMR). In this process, carbon dioxide (CO2) is released, unless CCU (carbon capture and utilization) is applied which prevents excess CO2 from reaching the atmosphere.

The most widely discussed alternative to SMR and the one that is currently the leading pathway to achieve carbon-neutral hydrogen production, is to produce hydrogen by electrolysis of water using renewable power such as solar, wind, water, et cetera. This is currently the main track for establishing the hydrogen economy with a maximum climate benefit.

2. What is the difference between a fuel cell truck and a battery-electric truck?

A fuel cell truck is an electric truck (FCEV) that generates electricity from fuel cells. These are powered by hydrogen, which is fueled and stored in tanks on the truck. In a fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen are combined through an electrochemical reaction to generate electricity, heat and water.

This is in contrast to a battery electric truck (BEV), which gets its energy from batteries that are charged via an external electricity source. A fuel cell truck also has a battery that can provide extra power when needed and for regeneration, however this battery is much smaller compared to the battery in a BEV. When available, hydrogen trucks are also expected to carry more energy and provide longer ranges than a BEV.

3. What is the difference between a hydrogen fuel cell truck and a hydrogen combustion engine truck?

A hydrogen combustion engine truck has the same hydrogen tank as a fuel cell truck. The difference is that power is provided by a combustion engine that has been modified to combust hydrogen instead of diesel.

A combustion engine truck can have net zero CO2 emissions when operating on renewable fuels. There will be some nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particles, within the limits of the applicable emission legislations, (e.g., Euro VI, Euro VII, EPA 27) in the exhaust.

A hydrogen fuel cell truck is electric and silent, emitting nothing but water, while a hydrogen combustion engine truck can for example be suited better for hot climates or when more power is needed over longer periods.

4. Why should I invest in battery electric when hydrogen trucks are coming? Will hydrogen replace diesel and electric trucks in the future? 

When it comes to availability, battery-electric trucks are already offered in a range of models, and can support decarbonization today. Hydrogen trucks are being developed but will not be ready for high volume production before the end of this decade.

With continuous range and battery development and a growing charging infrastructure, a major part of the freight transport in Europe can be carried out with battery-electric trucks today.

“We need contributions from both battery-electric trucks, fuel cell electric trucks and trucks with combustion engines running on renewable fuels, to reach net zero CO2 emissions. Our aim is to support customers, so they feel that we make the decarbonization journey together and in the best possible way. Customers can choose their trucks with respect to application, available infrastructure and price of energy. Decarbonization cannot wait and we strongly recommend our customers to start already today by buying an electric or biogas truck,” says Daniel Bergstrand, Volvo Trucks Product Manager H2-ICE & Fuel Cells.

5. When can you buy a hydrogen truck and what does it cost?

For Volvo Trucks, customer pilots of hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric trucks will start a few years from now and commercialization is planned for the end of this decade. 

In the meantime, it is already possible today for hauliers who want  zero exhaust emission transport, since there are battery electric models as well as trucks that run on renewable fuels, such as biogas.

According to Volvo Trucks, the long term ambition should be that the total cost of ownership (TCO) during the lifecycle of the truck, including the purchase price and the running costs, should be equal or lower, compared to the diesel alternative. 

6. How sustainable are hydrogen-powered trucks?

Hydrogen-powered vehicles can have a very low carbon footprint, when the hydrogen is produced from renewable sources. They can offer a high-energy, low-emission alternative to fossil fuels. However, sustainability depends on the entire lifecycle of the hydrogen fuel and vehicle, including production, operation, and disposal.

Hydrogen fuel cell trucks are more energy-efficient to operate than traditional internal combustion engine trucks, but not as energy efficient as battery-electric trucks.

One of the benefits of running on hydrogen is that the fuel can be produced when there is an excess of renewable energy (wind blowing, sun shining). The hydrogen is then stored and potentially used when renewable energy production is more limited.

7. Are hydrogen-powered trucks safe to drive?

A safe use of Hydrogen means preventing situations where there can be a leakage in combination with a cause of ignition. Hydrogen is non-toxic and dissolves rapidly when released into the air.

Like other fuels, it does require knowledge of using Hydrogen safely. Leak detection and adequate ventilation, when the truck is operating or parked indoors, are important. Testing of hydrogen systems shows that hydrogen can be produced, stored, and dispensed safely.

“Hydrogen trucks are an exciting development towards our target of a fossil free trucking industry. But it will not be the most suitable solution for all trucks and transport segments. A discussion with your local dealer could be a first step to learn what’s the best option for you and there are already proven solutions out there to reach net zero CO2 emissions,” says Daniel Bergstrand, Volvo Trucks Product Manager H2-ICE & Fuel Cells. 

Here you can read more detailed information on Hydrogen or get the latest news and updates.

Watch our expert Daniel Bergstrand answer more questions around hydrogen trucks:

  •  When will you be able to buy a hydrogen truck?
  •  There’s a lot of alternative fuels, how do you choose the best one?
  •  What about the infrastructure for hydrogen – what is the current status?
  •  What kind of investments will be required to enable a broad roll out of hydrogen?
  •  What about the cost of a hydrogen truck – will it be worth it?