HOUSTON — Consensus in the hydrogen transportation ecosystem — is it too early to call it an industry? — can be hard to come by.
When it comes to talking about hydrogen fueling trucks, the one widely held belief is the infrastructure challenges remain immense to allow it to be a reliable and extensively available fuel for heavy-duty trucking.
But there are many questions that first need to be answered about how hydrogen in the truck will work. Will it be injected as a gas or a liquid? Will it go into a hydrogen internal combustion engine? Or will it be pumped into a fuel cell, which will convert it to electricity that powers an electricity-based drivetrain? Or will the solutions be multiple?
The complex path forward is spurring a number of startups, many of which found a role last week at CERAWeek by S&P Global. The running joke was that the meeting should be called “hydrogen week” instead of CERAWeek.
One of the companies that used CERAWeek to present its product offerings and theories on where the market is headed was Verne, a startup that’s not even 2 years old and funded by companies that include Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy. Ted McKlveen, Verne’s CEO, spoke on a panel that focused on the challenge of a truck achieving the same mileage range as a diesel rig with hydrogen while keeping the hydrogen cost low.
Verne’s focus is on how hydrogen is stored on board a truck.
“Our goal is to help fleets transition to zero emission operations without sacrificing any of the performance they are used to from diesel,” McKlveen said.
Those trade-offs come from the two ways that hydrogen now can be stored on board a truck, which in turn would depend on what engine system is chosen. One is as a compressed gas; the other is as a liquid after the hydrogen has been cooled to about negative-260 degrees Celsius.
Each has limitations. Hydrogen as a gas is less dense, which means shorter ranges and weight penalties from multiple tanks on board.
The problem with liquified hydrogen is liquefaction.
“That requires large plants that look like refineries,” McKlveen said. “It’s a centralized piece of infrastructure [and also expensive]. The trade-offs now are high.”
The basic process is relatively simple, as described by McKlveen. What Verne is pursuing is storing the hydrogen as what he described as “a cold and compressed gas.”
The target, according to McKlveen, is to target “the thermodynamic sweet spot between pure compression and pure liquefaction.” Chilling it does increase the energy density — not to the level of full liquefaction but significantly improved over its density as a gas.
McKlveen said the Verne system has not yet been tried on a truck. But the work has led the company to declare its cold gas mix could provide a truck with more than a 1,000-mile range on par with the range of a diesel-powered Class 8 truck.
The working physics theory behind the Verne model is that the combined density from the compression of the gas and the chilling of it — but not enough to liquify it — can still provide that maximum 1,000-mile range without the high costs of full liquefaction.
At this point, Verne is not only trying to test a theory – it’s also a mini-manufacturing company. As McKlveen said, if somebody were to visit the company’s headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area, they would find not just entrepreneurs but welders and other craftsmen.
Verne is building tanks that go into trucks and “chillers” that would be at hydrogen-dispensing facilities that make the element available as a gas. McKlveen pointed out that was another drawback to liquid hydrogen as a fuel.
“You have to go to a fueling station that has liquid hydrogen,” said McKlveen, noting there are a lot more outlets for hydrogen gas. “A lot of companies are talking about scaling up liquid hydrogen, but we are skeptical that it’s going to scale up enough to really have complete market coverage.”
The Verne system would involve taking the hydrogen gas off a dispenser, chilling but not liquifying it and then dispensing it into the onboard tanks specifically designed for that purpose. The gas coming off a pipeline would also need to be compressed, but McKlveen indicated that would occur separately and that Verne is not building compression equipment.
The system also works with liquid hydrogen pumped through a cryopump, which takes liquid hydrogen and turns it into compressed gas. That gas would then be chilled through the Verne system, McKlveen said.
Verne’s equipment does not include compressors, McKlveen added.
Verne’s seed round came in June 2022, although the amount raised was not disclosed. When asked about the need for more funding, McKlveen said: “We’re good for now.” But he also said grants and other sources supplemented the seed round.
The next big step for Verne is to actually put the system on a Class 8 truck. McKlveen said that might be done with an existing hydrogen vehicle produced by an OEM or a non-hydrogen vehicle retrofitted to allow the pilot program to go forward.
“Next year we’ll do a Class 8 truck demonstration,” McKlveen said. If that’s successful, he said broader pilot programs can be pursued in 2025 and beyond.
He described the strategy as being “in parallel,” searching out partners for a first test of the system and then entering discussions with OEMs for pilot programs if the 2024 demonstrations prove successful.
McKlveen expressed no strong views on whether the drivetrain for hydrogen-powered vehicles is likely to be a hydrogen internal combustion engine or a fuel cell powering an electric drivetrain. He noted that Cummins last year announced its plans to develop a hydrogen ICE.
But McKlveen also said hydrogen ICE engines still can have significant nitrogen-oxide emissions, “and for some of these, they are not going to qualify for tailpipe emission regulations.”
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