Nikola’s Big Rig Hybrid Switches From Natural Gas to Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Hydrogen, Technology  /   /  By Jim Motavalli

What Nikola Motor Company announced last spring, and was presumably planning to unveil in December, was a hybrid long-distance big rig that used an on-board natural gas turbine range extender (like the gas version in the BMW i3) to recharge a 320-kilowatt-hour battery pack. Moving the heavy loads were no less than six electric motors making a robust combined 2,000 horsepower (and 3,700 pound-feet of torque).

Even fully laden, the tractor was to be capable of 1,200 miles on a full 150-gallon tank. But forget all that (or at least most of it) because Salt Lake City-based Nikola is now saying that its electric drivetrain will be backed by a hydrogen fuel cell, not a natural gas tank.

Nikola interior

The Nikola truck shows impressive fit-and-finish detail. (Nikola Motor Company photo)

As FuelCellCars.com has written, hydrogen has shown a lot of promise as a replacement for diesel in long-distance trucking. Vision Motor Corporation—which addressed the short-haul market—was a high-profile entry that won contracts to carry containers at California ports, but ran out of funding. Natural gas has dominated the alternative-fuel market in that space, but its cost advantage against diesel has eroded considerably. Hydrogen is still more expensive than the other options per gallon equivalent, but it’s getting cheaper (in part, ironically, because of inexpensive natural gas—its main feedstock).

“Given the progress on fuel-cell buses, specialty vehicles and other component technologies, a fuel-cell semi certainly is technically feasible, though I can’t speak to Nikola’s specifics,” said Robert Rose, founding executive director of the Breakthrough Technologies Institute and the U.S. Fuel Cell Council. “Critically, fuel cells beat batteries by a mile in charging/fueling time, which may have been a factor in Nikola’s decision.”

What Nikola One now wants to put under the hood is a “custom-built hydrogen-electric 800-volt fuel cell.” The company said, “Nikola’s hydrogen Class 8 truck will be more powerful than any production diesel truck on the road.” And it still has that 1,200-mile range, plus fuel economy equivalent

John Voelcker, editor of Green Car Reports, expressed some skepticism about a refueling network for the trucks. “While either natural gas or hydrogen conceivably makes more sense for the heaviest long-haul trucks on interstate highways,” he said, “Nikola may find that building a suitable network of hydrogen stations is a lengthier and much costlier process than doing the same for DC fast-charging sites to be used by electric cars.”

Nikola tractor trailer

Nikola will unveil its 2,000-horsepower tractor in December. The power hasn’t changed, but the powertrain has. (Nikola Motor Company photo)

But Nikola CEO Trevor Milton says he’s got refueling covered. “Nikola plans to have a nationwide network of over 50 hydrogen stations for customers to being refueling by 2020. This will make Nikola Motor Company the first in the world to be 100 percent emission-free from energy production to transportation to consumption. Say goodbye to the days of dirty diesels and after treatment in the heavy-duty Class 8 market.”

And the company is definitely shaking up the slow-to-change heavy trucking market. Nikola sayd that it has taken $3 billion in pre-orders since May 1. Prototypes of the hybrid hydrogen-electric truck will be shown to the press December 1 in Salt Lake City.

Other companies are also getting into this space, including Hydrogenics, which announced a turnkey fuel-cell system for medium- and heavy-duty trucks last year. According to Rob Del Core, business development director at Hydrogenics, “I found that there was no dedicated power system to power medium- and heavy-duty buses and trucks. There were fuel-cell systems out there, but you really had to do a lot of work to integrate them and make them work in the application. You have to do more to make it work and tie more pieces together.”

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