As the world races to decarbonize for a livable climate future, few sectors face greater upheaval than global freight. An empire built on the diesel engine now faces an existential reckoning.
“We are witnessing two colliding disruptions at the same time,” says Michael Perschke. “There’s the core shift from internal combustion energy to batteries and fuel cells, but that’s also reshaping the entire supply chain operation.”
Perschke is the CEO of Quantron, a German startup that is at the forefront of pioneering hydrogen solutions to replace diesel for heavy-duty transportation. They commercialize electric buses and trucks as well as trucks with hydrogen fuel cells, which they say are ideal for heavy-duty transport over long distances.
I met him at the Web Summit in Lisbon, where the company announced a partnership with the Oilinvest Group (a major player in the European downstream oil industry, better known for the Tamoil and HEM brands) to build hydrogen-based refueling infrastructure for the supply of fuel cell electrical energy. heavy trucks. The partnership led to the creation of a new joint venture, HEMTRON.
The scale of the transition that Perschke envisions is staggering. Given that the modern economy relies on trucks to transport nearly all goods over vast distances, completely overhauling this distributed infrastructure while maintaining reliability presents an exceptionally complex challenge.
First of all, new range restrictions must be taken into account when route planning. “Today you have no range anxiety. You fill the diesel truck and it comes as long as you want with 1200, 1600 liters of diesel. Tomorrow you have to operate your assets with range anxiety in mind. So you have to replan your route,” Perschke noted.
Energy companies must quickly build refueling stations for electrons and molecules. Currently, there is virtually no hypercharging infrastructure for electric trucks in Europe, which poses significant challenges for reliable route planning.
‘There is nothing. There may be a few stations, but by accident and not by design.”
The situation is improving. In Sweden, around 130 charging stations are planned to open in 2023 and 2024, and in Germany a new network of six ultra-fast 300 kW electric vehicle chargers has recently opened along the Rhône-Alpine logistics corridor. But we’re clearly still in the early stages.
The infrastructure for heavy hydrogen trucks is also still in its infancy. That is one of the reasons why the collaboration with Oilinvest was signed. Oilinvest subsidiaries operate approximately 2,450 petrol stations under the Tamoil and HEM brands in Europe; together with external and newly established locations, this network will provide a basis for the spread of zero-emission fuel cell electric vehicles.
The economic consequences of this shift are also significant. Highlighting the rising costs associated with green transportation (including the implementation of new technologies, infrastructure development and the transition to clean energy sources), Perschke states: “You need a customer to understand that green transportation is not free. He must also be prepared to pay more. The total operating costs per kilometer will become more expensive.” This reflects a broader need for market education about the value and costs of sustainable practices.
Yet the environment cannot afford inaction. The figures testify to the enormous ecological footprint of freight transport. In the US alone, medium- to heavy-duty trucks emitted more than 417 million tons of CO2 in 2021. In the same year, heavy trucks and buses were responsible for 27% of the approximately 740 million tons of carbon dioxide emitted in the EU. . The European Union has set ambitious targets to improve the situation, aiming to reduce CO2 emissions from trucks by 90% by 2040.
Quantron wants to take the lead in reducing these emissions.
“We are a very early mover. We have the first hydrogen fuel cell truck suitable for long distances in Europe. We are the only truck that can tow a standard trailer tomorrow,” says Perschke. Describing their work in hydrogen fuel cell technology, he explains that Quantron uniquely ‘up-engineers’ existing diesel trucks by replacing the engine and tank with hydrogen fuel cells, leaving the chassis intact.
According to Quantron, hydrogen has important advantages over batteries for heavy transport. Refueling takes minutes, not hours. In terms of cost, batteries can compete with personal vehicles and daily commuting.
“Personally, I believe that the greatest need for everyday personal mobility can be met with electric vehicles. Because ultimately, a hydrogen vehicle makes sense if you really have to travel long distances with it, if you really want to travel long distances. avoid downtime when charging and if you have access to reasonably priced, competitive hydrogen.”
There are different schools of thought on this. For example, a 2022 study from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research estimated that electric trucks could still maintain a competitive advantage, even over long distances. “Within 4.5 hours, a heavy truck could travel about 400 km and so a practical range of about 450 km would be sufficient, if high-power fast charging for battery-electric trucks were widely available,” said the lead researcher.
Ultimately, both technologies may have a role to play. “Neither is a silver bullet. You need different solutions based on topography, climate and network capacity,” says Quantron’s CEO.
For example, the battery’s range decreases when heavy loads are towed uphill in freezing weather. Fast charging leads to congestion when queues arise. Hydrogen avoids these problems.
With coordinated efforts across infrastructure, operations and vehicle technologies, Perschke remains confident that goods can continue to flow reliably in a zero-emissions future. To achieve this, a shared commitment is required – in the public, private and consumer spheres. They all play a long-term role in decarbonizing the economy.