By Quinton de Villiers
It is encouraging to witness the concerted effort made by the international transport industry to develop a cleaner and more reliant fuel source.
While electric-hybrid trucks dominated the international headlines in 2017, hybrid fuel cells have finally come under the spotlight this year.
More recently, a large international transporter announced that it would be buying up to 800 hydrogen trucks from Nikola Motor Company.
Nikola Motor Company is a zero-emission start-up company that competes against Tesla, the developer of an electric heavy-commercial vehicle, as they both vie for a share of a market that is in search of a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, a significant contributor to green-house gas emissions.
Anheuser-Busch, a large beer distributor, will start taking delivery of its “green” big rigs in 2020, following their first commercial appearance at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show.
Noticeably, these trucks are able to travel more than 1 600 km on a full tank of hydrogen fuel that powers their electric motors, and they will play a substantial role in assisting this transporter achieve its aspirations of eventually running its entire dedicated fleet with renewable energy.
I have always taken a keen interest in innovative third-party logistics providers, considering that the ability to revolutionise is essential in today’s global economy where supply-chains have become increasingly complex. This is where leading transporters, such as Bridgewater Logistics, are able to bring real value as experts in the fields of both line-haul and distribution.
Prior to this announcement, Anheuser-Busch pre-ordered 40 Tesla electric semi-trucks, in addition to offering up to 50 000 cans of beer to a leading producer to be the first shipment on an Uber self-driving commercial vehicle, another potential “disruptive” technology.
While I am looking forward to the outcome of these ambitious projects, I am just as encouraged by the many South African entities that are also making headlines for their stellar work in driving the development of this new “green” fuel source.
This is against backdrop of rising fuel prices, which have already had a profound negative impact on the supply chains of already-beleaguered South African companies.
As a net importer of fuel, the country and its transporters will always be vulnerable to unpredictable fluctuating diesel prices, and this situation is being exacerbated by the transport-intensive nature of our economy.
A sound example of South Africa’s participation in this programme is Hydrogen South Africa (HySA), which is being funded by the Department of Science and Technology.
Importantly, HySA aims to increase the uptake of South Africa’s large platinum reserves by helping to stimulate the development of and global adoption of fuel cell technology.
Platinum is used to manufacture the electrodes of these batteries, which contain a catalyst that strips electrons off the hydrogen atoms.
They then become positively-charged hydrogen ions and pass through an electrolyte to another electrode, over which oxygen is passed to cause a chemical reaction that creates electricity.
In addition, a large South African platinum producer recently also revealed its intentions of introducing a fuel-cell dozer at one of its underground operations.
While this may only appear to be a smart marketing campaign, the company has also demonstrated its commitment to a hydrogen future by investing heavily into High-Yield Energy Technologies (HyET), a developer of electrochemical hydrogen compression technology.
Interestingly, one of HyET’s other investors is a large multinational hydrocarbons producer, pointing to the interest that even the large fuel giants have shown in the real potential of hydrogen fuel cells.
One of the company’s latest compressors forces gas through a platinum-based membrane to reach pressures of up to 1 000 bar and ensures simultaneous purification.
It has no moving parts and is, therefore, claimed to be able to operate at a fraction of the cost of other mechanical compressors, while also being significantly more reliable, especially in heavy-duty transport applications.
Moreover, it stores a larger amount of energy than conventional batteries, allowing a vehicle to drive about 100 km on a kilogram of compressed hydrogen, as opposed to only a kilometre on the energy stored in a kilogram of conventional batteries.
Meanwhile, the stellar work already done by Toyota and Hyundai in hydrogen fuel cells, both leading international vehicle manufacturers, also talks to the potential future of international transport.