GM is developing a fleet of hydrogen-powered medium-duty trucks for the DOE pilot

General Motors will launch a fleet of medium-duty trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells as part of a pilot project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The goal is to prove the potential of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, as a viable alternative to diesel vehicles.

“We will design, engineer and develop a fleet of hydrogen fuel cell medium-duty trucks,” said Jacob Lozier, project leader at GM, “to demonstrate how the capabilities and power of our fuel cells can help real fleet customers.”

Development of the trucks will be funded by DOE’s SuperTruck program, which aims to reduce CO2 emissions from heavy- and medium-duty vehicles. The total project will cost $65 million, with $26 million coming from DOE, and GM and its partners will provide the rest.

Development of the trucks would be funded under DOE’s SuperTruck program

The trucks will share an exterior design with the current Chevy Silverado 5500 medium-duty trucks. But under the hood, they will run on hydrogen fuel cells developed by GM’s Hydrotec division. The automaker is working on a number of other hydrogen-related projects, including mobile power generators, cement mixers and heavy-duty vehicles. GM also has a joint venture with Honda to develop hydrogen fuel cells for a variety of products.

GM will supply the fuel cell trucks to Southern Company, an Atlanta-based gas and electric utility, for use as retail vehicles for its workplaces. The automaker also envisions the trucks being used for agricultural activities and municipal services. GM will also work with Nel ASA, using the Norwegian company’s PEM Electrolyzer, in an effort to create hydrogen more sustainably.

Hydrogen fuel cells use compressed hydrogen as fuel, with water vapor being the only emission. A number of automakers have recently seized on the technology for its benefits in developing heavy-duty vehicles and mobile power generators – and as a way to move further away from polluting gas-powered vehicles and meet their own climate goals.

The trucks will share an exterior design with the current Chevy Silverado 5500 medium-duty trucks

The energy content of hydrogen per volume is low, which makes storing hydrogen a challenge because it requires high pressures, low temperatures or chemical processes to be stored compactly. Overcoming this challenge is important for light vehicles, as they often have limited size and weight capacities for fuel storage.

The Biden administration recently proposed new tax guidelines to make it cheaper to produce hydrogen as a less polluting alternative to fossil fuels. The problem, however, is that most hydrogen is made using fossil fuels, usually through a process called steam methane reforming, which produces carbon dioxide emissions. Methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 and routinely escapes throughout the supply chain, from production to end use.

But GM says it is committed to cleaner methods of hydrogen production when they become available. “Our approach right now is to be a little bit agnostic as to what the sources are,” said Charles Freese, executive director of GM’s Hydrotec division.

The main obstacle for hydrogen is the almost total absence of refueling infrastructure in the US. According to the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership, there are only 55 hydrogen stations in California – which is essentially the total for the entire country. And fueling can be expensive, with the Department of Energy estimating the cost at more than $90 per vehicle.

“We know how to make hydrogen fuel cells,” Freese said, “but we’re demonstrating it as part of an ecosystem where you start to balance hydrogen delivery and refueling along with the use and application of the trucks. These are all elements of what we will demonstrate with this fleet.”

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