Which is the Fuel of the Future?


With environmental concerns mounting and traditional fuels increasingly expensive, the transport industry is changing fast. Governments, haulage companies and manufacturers are all investing in the future, usually placing their bets on one of two contenders: hydrogen or lithium. In this article, we’ll explore some of the pros and cons of each.

Hydrogen

What is it?                  

An odourless, colourless gas, with a high energy output and clean burning.

How does it work?     

Hydrogen is pumped from a tank into a fuel cell, where a chemical reaction takes place, producing electricity.

Pros

Hydrogen has a few major advantages as a fuel source. As mentioned, its energy output of 40,000 watt-hours per kilogram dwarfs other alternative fuels. It also adds no weight to vehicles, solving a major problem with efficiency and helping produce ranges of up to 400 miles on a single tank. This makes it especially attractive to haulage companies, for whom minimising wait and refuel times is crucial. 

Cons

Although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the (known) universe, its biggest problem is the difficulty of extraction. Current methods use electrolysis, separating hydrogen atoms from oxygen atoms in water. This is both enormously costly (up to eight times the rate ‘at the fuel’ of lithium recharges) and somewhat self-defeating, as electrolysis currently uses natural gas, which has a higher energy yield than hydrogen and is significantly pollutive. Even updated methods using polymer exchange membranes (PEMs) lose around 20% of the energy in extraction.

In addition, commercial operators (including haulage companies) often baulk at hydrogen’s image problem. While we’re a long way past the Hindenburg, the idea of a difficult to store, highly flammable and nigh-undetectable fuel source can cause understandable concern among the general public.

Lithium

What is it?

The main element in batteries, lithium can store electricity and release it over time.

How does it work?

Mobile phones and laptop computers currently use lithium batteries, so think along those lines. They plug into a power source to charge and store the energy for use as needed.

Pros

Lithium has none of hydrogen’s issues with extraction or storage. It’s easy to access and even current methods retain 99% of energy. It also has the advantage of being able to literally plug into existing infrastructure. We already have means of transporting and accessing electricity more or less instantly, so switching to a lithium-fuel economy would require only improvements of scale. Governments and haulage companiesalike prefer to avoid qualitative innovation in favour of incremental adjustment. It’s also more efficient than hydrogen, though both are massive improvements over hydrocarbons.

Cons

The main problem with lithium is its low energy output. At just 280 watt-hours per kilogram, it’s a mere fraction of the power of hydrogen. It also takes far longer to refuel, with a full recharge taking up to three hours. While this is fine for urban drivers, commercial operatorsare unlikely to be able to make this cost-effective. Its shorter range also means recharges must be performed more often.

The Verdict

As you can see, each of these fuel types has serious issues. A ‘dual-fuel’ revolution is perhaps possible, with industrial vehicles using hydrogen and short-journey ones using lithium, but even this would require a lot of infrastructural investment. Regardless of which comes out on top, haulage companiesand others should keep a close eye on developments.

Author Plate

Norman Dulwich is a Correspondent for Haulage Exchange, the leading online trade network for the road transport industry. Connecting professionals across the UK and Europe through their website, Haulage Exchange provides services for matching haulage companies or self-employed drivers with jobs in road transport and haulage work. Over 5,400 member companies are networked together through the Exchange to fill empty capacity, get new clients and form long-lasting business relationships.

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