Hydrogen heavyweights hit Alberta highways

Elsie Ross
July 20, 2022

By this time next year, the world’s first heavy duty hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks should be moving freight between Calgary and Edmonton, as the long haul transport sector looks to hydrogen as a low-cost low-carbon transportation fuel.

The Alberta Motor Transport Association is leading the $17.26 million AZETEC (Alberta Zero Emissions Truck Electrification Collaboration) project, which includes $7.3 million in provincial government funding from Emissions Reduction Alberta. AZETEC’s web site indicates that it brought together 12 stakeholders within the energy, technology and transportation sectors, with the primary focus on “moving freight in Alberta’s geographical and climatic conditions while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and spurring a hydrogen economy.”

“That was a collaborative approach to make sure we can put them [trucks] on the road at Alberta weights, in Alberta distances, in Alberta environments,” Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) president Chris Nash told Research Money. “The goal is how do we build the range out and build the weather capability and build the heavyweights.”

The two 63-tonne tractor-trailers, in two different configurations are being built in Montreal. Beginning in the second or third quarter of 2023, following testing, Bison Transport and Trimac Transportation will launch the 18-month trial that will provide data for industry and academia.

As part of the project, AZETEC also will develop and demonstrate a hydrogen fuelling station for highway-capable, heavy-duty commercial fleet vehicles. The station will be in operation later this year outside the Suncor Energy Inc. refinery east of Edmonton, near where the trucks will be based. Suncor will capture and sequester the carbon dioxide from the natural gas used in the production of the hydrogen.

As far as AZETEC is aware, the Class 8 trucks are the first hydrogen fuel cell trucks of that size and capacity that have ever been built, said Nash. Although there are heavy-duty trucks in operation in the southern United States, they aren’t as large.

“It’s a made-in-Canada solution with all the different companies.”

Putting hydrogen trucks through their paces

In addition to the AZETEC project, Nash’s association is planning a demonstration initiative involving two heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks and one dual (hydrogen and diesel) truck. It will be working with three United States truck manufacturers to give its members an opportunity to get a feel for how the trucks could work in their operations, potentially accelerating the adoption of hydrogen as a transportation fuel to meet 2030-2050 zero emission targets.

In setting up the demonstrations, the intent is to make sure the trucks can work in different environments, from pavement to off-road terrain, and various distances from a fuelling station. The AMTA also will be providing mobile fuelling stations.

“We've had a lot of technology in our industry that industry has tried to figure out on their own,” said Nash. “So we felt, what if we can be collaborative in the approach to this to bring the whole ecosystem together and work towards what this could be for an industry built by industry [and] used by industry.”

Hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks use fuel cells to convert hydrogen gas stored in the trucks’ fuel tank into electricity that powers the trucks’ electric motors and charges the battery.

In addition to having zero tailpipe emissions, electric trucks are able to provide higher torque than diesel-fuelled trucks, which is useful for pulling heavy loads, accelerating, and climbing steep grades. As fuel cells can provide more storage than a battery, they can extend the distance travelled.

With considerably fewer parts, electric fuel cell vehicles also should have significantly lower maintenance costs than internal combustion engine vehicles, said Nash.

Research has focused on the massive Class 8 trucks because they transport more than 85 per cent of all of freight carried in Canada by truck, even though they make up only 20 per cent of the trucks, said David Layzell, an energy systems architect with the Transition Accelerator, a charity dedicated to examining the prospects of hydrogen. The trucks, which drive an average of 100,000 kilometres per truck annually, also account for more than 60 per cent of all the fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions from trucking.

“If you want to address climate change, you've really got to target the 20 per cent of the trucks that are sold every year and actually have over 60 per cent of the emissions,” he said.

Targeting a major part of Canada's transportation economy

With the transportation sector as a whole accounting for 25 per cent of emissions, it’s key that the industry find a responsible way to address the issue and that’s why hydrogen is so important, added Nash. “If you're going a long distance, and you have a driver in the truck, and they need to fuel up and keep moving because they don't want to wait for the recharge [from an electric battery] there needs to be a hydrogen solution.”

The Transition Accelerator, in a new report, Techno-economics of a New Hydrogen Value Chain Supporting Heavy Duty Transport, suggests that hydrogen for transportation fuel, especially in use with heavy-duty vehicles, holds the greatest promise for early adoption, as Canadians pay five to 10 times more per unit of energy for transportation fuels than for heating fuels.

A lot of the think tank’s work has involved trying to figure out how to shift one of Canada’s largest and most important economic sectors away from high energy use and air pollution, by introducing cleaner fuels in a way that is not that is not disruptive, said Layzell, one of the authors of the report. The objective is setting the lowest cost for the Canadian taxpayer, while moving the sector to economic viability without ongoing public investments.

“Hydrogen offers that opportunity because, especially in Canada, we’ve got quite low cost sources of low-carbon hydrogen potential,” he said. However, hydrogen can be produced inexpensively only if it is made and delivered in large quantities, such as to fuelling stations that would service hundreds of vehicles per day.

“What we really are looking at is the creation of long distance corridors,” such as the 300-kilometre QE2 Highway between Edmonton and Calgary, where 5,000 tractor-trailer units are on the road, said Layzell. Another potential corridor is between Vancouver and Winnipeg.

His team is now working on the technical economic analysis for a corridor between Winnipeg and Vancouver, and another one between Quebec City and Sarnia, or Quebec City and Windsor.

“These are major corridors, where you find heavy duty trucks where they're driving 500-700 kilometres a day, sometimes more,” he said. For example, about 15,000 Class 8 trucks a day are on the road between Toronto and Windsor or Sarnia, while the Montreal-Toronto corridor handles more than 10,000 Class 8 trucks a day.

“They're basically long-haul, and then you only need filling stations every 200-300 hundred kilometres  — perhaps more frequent in the mountains — and you need to pick them very strategically.”

Riding the rails

In another area of freight transportation, CP Rail is developing North America’s first long-haul hydrogen-powered locomotive which would travel between cities using fuel cells and batteries to drive the electric traction

A $15 million grant from Emissions Reduction Alberta in 2021 added a line-haul and a yard-switcher locomotive to the initial line-haul diesel electric locomotive to be retrofitted with hydrogen fuel cells. The grant built on the $15 million CP had planned to invest in the development project in 2021.

The work will refine the process of converting diesel-electric powertrains to hydrogen-electric powertrains over a series of three categories of locomotives, which collectively represent most locomotives in use throughout North America.

To support hydrogen locomotive operations, the project also will include installation of hydrogen production and fuelling facilities at CP rail yards in Calgary and Edmonton. The Calgary facility will include an electrolysis plant to produce hydrogen from water, which will operate on renewable power from solar panels at CP’s nearby headquarters, producing zero greenhouse gas emissions. The Edmonton facility includes a small-scale steam methane reformation system that will generate hydrogen from Alberta natural gas. The system will be constructed to accommodate the possible future addition of greenhouse gas capture equipment.

Construction of the refuelling facilities is expected to begin later this year with production and supply of hydrogen to be provided to locomotives in 2023, according to the Calgary-based ATCO Group, which will construct the facilities. In January of this year, CP posted on Twitter a picture of its hydrogen locomotive running under its own power, adding that the unit was preparing for field testing

The federal government’s national hydrogen strategy has identified a potential market for hydrogen of about 55,000 tonnes a day by 2050, if it were to be used as a fuel. Although 8,000 to 9,000 tonnes of hydrogen a day is already being produced across Canada, it is used primarily as industrial feedstock, for processes such as cracking bitumen into synthetic crude oil or upgrading oil to gasoline and diesel.

“It's not used as fuel too much, and it's certainly not used too much in fuel cells,” said Layzell.

In some areas such as Western Canada, so-called “blue” hydrogen, which has a lesser environmental impact, can be produced from natural gas with geological sequestration (carbon capture, use and storage). Meanwhile, even more benign “green” hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis, using the ample hydroelectric resources of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.


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