Fueled with hydrogen instead of diesel, electrically powered Class 8 trucks could offer a much cleaner way to move freight.
But first, America's national labs must light a development path toward more efficient and durable "heavy-duty" fuel cells. Many experts believe using these to energize massive electric motors could easily and affordably move tons of cargo, almost like road-going locomotives. And recently, a $100 million funding bet was laid to put this commercialization effort on the rails.
Half the money will go toward a fuel cell research initiative called the Million Mile Fuel Cell Truck. This is a new U.S. Department of Energy-funded consortium of five main national labs and three affiliate labs working on "pre-competitive" ways to solve the cell durability and efficiency challenges for heavy-duty uses. This consortium coordinates the lab work, provides expert oversight and stirs that together with individual activity from private industry developers and advanced academic projects.
A fuel cell uses a supply of hydrogen gas and oxygen to make electricity, water and heat. Fuel cell efficiency — the percentage of the potential energy that gets converted to useful work — is generally 40 to 60 percent. But projected breakthroughs could drive that to 72 percent. Further lab work is also required to stretch cell durability.