The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released recently, confirmed that human activity is warming the globe, primarily through emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, New Mexico regulators are considering adopting clean-car standards that require up to 10% of new cars sold in New Mexico produce zero carbon emissions in 2025.
So it makes sense that hydrogen fuel cells for powering trucks and vehicles are gaining renewed attention, particularly when considering that transportation accounts for about 40% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Fuel cells provide all the benefits of electric power, including zero emissions from the tailpipe, and offer extended ranges and shorter refueling times, which is better for heavy trucks, trains and airplanes. A few technological challenges have hindered widespread adoption of this clean power source, but 40-plus years of research by Los Alamos National Laboratory and others, with funding from the Department of Energy (DOE) Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office Million Mile Fuel Cell Truck consortium, is on track to solve them.
For example, one barrier to large-scale adoption of hydrogen fuel cells has been the limited number of fueling stations – just about 50 nationwide. Furthermore, on the technology side, while fuel cells cars are available, they still need durability improvements for the life required for heavy-duty trucks.
If we can fix that problem, trucks make sense for establishing fuel cells as renewable power for transportation. Collectively, long-haul trucks account for about a third of the greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. As a transitional step, converting the fleet to run on hydrogen produced from natural gas would slash those carbon emissions by 40%, and those emissions can be captured and permanently stored underground to reduce the emissions to near zero. Producing hydrogen from renewable energy – the ultimate goal – would also reduce emissions to zero.
On the practical side, trucks run on regular routes, simplifying the initial build-out of hydrogen fuel stations – picture a string of them along Interstate 40, for starters. Those stations would make it easier for car drivers, as well, which would help develop the market in personal transportation.
The durability technological problem stems from degradation of the platinum-coated membrane in the middle of a fuel cell. To address that, at Los Alamos we are developing materials to make fuel cells more viable for long-haul trucking. It’s part of our work as co-leader of the Million Mile Fuel Cell Truck consortium, which is aligned with DOE H2@Scale vision for clean and affordable hydrogen across multiple sectors in our economy.
New Mexico is in a great position to benefit from a hydrogen economy. In the short-term, natural gas facilities could be tapped to make hydrogen, keeping jobs in our energy-producing communities. In the long term, the state’s abundant solar and wind resources can be harnessed to separate hydrogen from non-potable water, with no negative environmental impacts. In making this transition, we can help reverse global warming while building a strong, sustainable energy sector for the state’s economy. Nothing short of our future is at stake.