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Disrupting Transportation: Where Hydrogen Energy Has a Big Future

By Travis Hoium - Updated Dec 8, 2016 at 1:12AM

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Hydrogen cars have been a flop so far, but the clean fuel may have a bright future elsewhere.

Electric vehicles are starting to gain traction among customers as battery costs come down and the number of EVs available for sale increase dramatically. The appeal is easy to see. Electricity is a lot cheaper than gasoline fuel, it's cleaner, and if designed correctly (see Tesla Motors (TSLA 4.67%)) EVs have an inherent performance advantage.

Slowly, there have been rumblings the electric drivetrain will make its way to larger trucks, potentially even semi trucks. But if they do, they won't look much like your typical electric vehicle. They may be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, and for good reason.

The new Nikola One trick. Image source: Nikola Motors. 

Why hydrogen is the future of trucking

The core problem with electric vehicles in trucking is that they require a lot of energy to move. And that energy has to be put into the vehicle quickly to get back on the road.

Fuel tank sizes vary, but a semi may carry 300 gallons of fuel, which is 20-30 times what the average automobile fuel tank. To put this amount of energy into perspective, Tesla's Supercharger can put about 170 miles of range into a Model S in 30 minutes, which is equivalent to five gallons of gasoline for a car that gets 34 miles per gallon. An equivalent charging time to transfer the equivalent of 300 gallons worth of electricity into a semi would be about 30 hours. And we haven't talked about degradation in batteries or the sheer weight of batteries that would have to be lugged around to hold that kind of energy.

These are back of the envelope calculations, and maybe an EV semi would charge differently than a Tesla Model S, but one can see that charging an EV semi would be a problem. That's why hydrogen, which is a dense form of energy that can be turned into electricity with a fuel cell, could be the answer. Nikola Motor Company is leading the charge into hydrogen with the new Nikola One, which can be refueled in 15 minutes and has an 800 mile to 1,200 mile range.

Competitors like Navistar (NAV) haven't participated directly in going hydrogen, but they're starting to see trucks retrofitted to include hydrogen fuel cells. That's similar to what Plug Power (PLUG 6.49%) is doing in partnership with FedEx and others in converting trucks and materials moving vehicles to hydrogen. In applications like trucking where utilization time matters, electric vehicles simply don't fill customers' needs, but hydrogen might.

And this dynamic could change more than just the trucking industry.

Why hydrogen is a game changer

Hydrogen has the potential to change a lot of what we know about energy. Using an electrolyzer, hydrogen can be produced from clean solar or wind energy whenever it's available. And it would be stored at a fueling station for the next hydrogen truck to show up.

Hydrogen can also be used to generate electricity anywhere with a fuel cell. In that sense, it could be a transportation fuel or a great energy storage medium for large quantities of energy. The only limitation to what you can store is the size of your fuel cell tanks.

Keep an eye on hydrogen in the future

Batteries have found their way into electric vehicles and even some short-term energy storage projects, where they will continue to be a great way to store energy. But hydrogen has some inherent advantages in applications like trucking and very long duration storage. The Nikola One's unveiling shows that hydrogen fuel is gaining traction. Now the next step will be building out the infrastructure and getting customers to adopt hydrogen trucks. That may be easier said than done, but hydrogen fuel appears to be taking steps in the right direction.

Travis Hoium has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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