The important thing to know about fuel cells is that they’re versatile, and hugely scalable. Fuel cells run utility-grade power plants, and can replace batteries in smart phones. And for vehicles, they can have the starring role, or play a supporting role.
The latter is what Ben Nyland, CEO of Loop Energy in Vancouver, British Columbia, has in mind. His eFlow fuel cells were debuted this month in the form of a 56-kilowatt range-extender (REX) power module for heavy-duty electric trucks. Loop was formed in 2000, but only turned toward commercializing its fuel cells four years ago.
REX units are very popular right now. BMW introduced its i3 as both a battery car and a REX range extender (giving the vehicle 160 miles of range). The REX is by far the more popular choice. It’s a small two-cylinder gas engine that doesn’t drive the car directly, but runs as a generator. The BMW REX was modified from its European specs to qualify for California’s zero emission credits, and that choice has been controversial.
“We believe range extension can apply to all vehicles,” Nyland told me. “Toyota has made a major commitment to fuel cells, and so have we—in a market where the economics make sense for us. We can add compelling value.”
That value proposition is relatively simple, and targeted. Ports use what are known as “behind the fence” yard trucks—not road registered, and limited to 25 mph—to move cargo and containers off ships and onto railroad cars and other conveyances. The problem, especially for crowded ports like Los Angeles, Oakland and Long Beach, is that the constant flow of the mostly diesel-powered traffic creates major pollution problems in adjacent neighborhoods.
The ports are mandating zero-emission alternatives, but moving heavy Class 8 drayage trucks with just 130 kilowatt-hours of battery power is a daunting proposition—resulting in a range of only about 60 or 70 miles. With Loop’s REX, fewer heavy batteries are needed and range goes to 200 miles. And because it’s a fuel cell, the vehicle satisfies zero-emission requirements.
There are natural gas and other alternatives, but the regulations are increasingly strict. “A plug-in hybrid would need to be plugged in partway through the day, disrupting deliveries,” Nyland said. “And plug-in hybrids produce emissions.”
The REX units aren’t on sale yet, and no price is available. According to Nyland, the first yard truck is now being built by China National Heavy Duty Trucking Company, and will come to the U.S. for testing at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports in the first or second quarter next year. Eventually, five demonstrator vehicles will be built for port demonstrations, and they’ll go on sale in 2018.
Loop’s REX modules offer a power density of 213 watts per liter, and can triple the range of a battery-electric vehicle. The units are supplied in turn-key form, with air compressors and controls, and they run off a 20-kilogram tank of gaseous hydrogen. Transit buses are another possible market, in addition to Class 6 to 8 trucks.
“We can reduce the size of the battery pack and the fuel cell, thereby closing the economic gap with fossil-fuel powertrains,” said Rob Wingrove, Loop’s director of product development.
As stated at the outset, fuel cells are scalable, so what works for big trucks could be similarly useful in cars like the BMW i3. “We’re very focused on one application now, but once we’re established there we can spread our wings into other markets,” Nyland said.