In the early 2000s, General Motors envisioned hundreds of thousands of fuel cell-powered vehicles on the road by 2010. Its research and development facility in the village of Honeoye Falls, New York, would be the nerve center of the ambitious plan.
It never happened. Instead, GM produced a few prototypes and 120 retrofitted Chevrolet Equinox SUVs used for two-week loans to consumers and businesses to acquaint them with driving on hydrogen power.
GM shut down the facility near Rochester in 2012. It integrated fuel cells into its powertrain operations in Pontiac, Michigan. Since then, a pickup truck-based military-style ZH2 demonstration vehicle and a 2017 joint venture with Honda Motor Co. on a new Hydrotec fuel cell stack are the only public signs of a fuel cell future.
A new tenant
Honeoye Falls, meanwhile, gained a new tenant in July. Two decades after GM predicted a fuel cell driving future, a spinoff of Singapore’s Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies may realize it. Hyzon Motors Inc. has European investors, 17 years of experience making a million fuel cells and working arrangements with two major manufacturers to retrofit their trucks.
“There were some [GM] people that didn’t relocate. And some of those people were contracting with us,” Hyzon CEO Craig Knight told FreightWaves in an October interview. “We learned a bit about the history and [that] there was a site available. It had some things we could walk into and refurbish and bring back to life fully certified hydrogen labs.
“That was attractive to us,” he said. “It saved us a significant amount of capital.”
Just the fuel cells
Hyzon’s focus is fuel cells. It is leaving the hydrogen fueling infrastructure and the design and building trucks to others. In that way, it differs from Nikola Corp. (NASDAQ: NKLA), which plans to build fuel cell trucks starting in 2023 along with hydrogen stations to fuel them.
In another way, Hyzon’s business plan resembles Nikola’s.
“We believe it makes sense to be the master integrator and pull together all the elements of the vehicle like the batteries and the motors,” Knight said.
“It costs a lot of money to set up factories,” he said. “We see that as something we can safely outsource. Focusing on the core technology within the fuel cell powertrains is where we can add value. We see ourselves as being the enabler of the transition to zero emissions.”
Hyzon isn’t alone in eschewing new factories.
South Korea’s Hyundai Motor is planning to import fuel cell trucks to the U.S. in 2021. Toyota Motor Corp. and its Hino Truck subsidiary also plan to bring in fuel cell tractors. Daimler Trucks AG and Volvo Group have a joint venture to make fuel cells for trucks and fixed uses like data centers.
“We have a couple of different vehicle platforms,” Knight said. “In Europe, we’re working with DAF on heavy trucks. In the U.S., we’re working with Ford on the medium trucks. And we’ve got a couple of options on the heavy trucks.”
About 400 buses and trucks powered by Hyzon fuel cells are on the road today. It expects to deliver as many as 5,000 more over the next three years. By 2025, Hyzon expects to turn out more than 40,000 fuel cell vehicles annually.
Thus far, Hyzon is creating fuel cell trucks from glider kits — truck bodies with the engine and transmission removed. The first examples in the U.S. will be midsize Ford trucks followed by a Class 8 platform Knight declined to identify. Both will be gliders rebranded as Hyzon.
“We see a lot of value in doing some of these early demonstrations even though the vehicles are not perfect,” he said. “They are not fully optimized to be electric vehicles because they were originally designed as diesel vehicles. The second half of the journey is systems that are designed from the ground up for electric drive.”
Hyzon is working with Fontaine Modification, an upfitter for equipment manufacturers, dealers and fleets, to assemble its trucks. It will tap into local hydrogen production, ideally green hydrogen made from waste feedstocks and biomass.
“Nobody can boil this ocean. So we’re very willing to enter into partnerships. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into having a viable vehicle ecosystem,” Knight said.
A more power-dense fuel cell
Hyzon’s latest proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell is designed to power ultra-heavy vehicles. With peak power density above 6 kilowatt hours per liter, it puts out twice the power volume of the typical fuel cell, according to third-party testing by TUV Rheinland, a testing and certification business.
That means a full-power fuel cell could generate 500 horsepower in a heavy truck, reducing dependence on batteries and saving weight, size and cost.
It also could be used for trains, which Cummins Inc. (NYSE: CMI) is testing with French rail equipment manufacturer Alstom SA. The higher-power fuel cell also could be used in airplanes because of its durability and long life.
About the money
Total Carbon Neutrality Ventures, the venture capital arm of European energy giant Total SE, led a funding round for Hyzon in October. The amount of the capital raise was not disclosed.
“We’re looking at a few options to fortify our balance sheet,” Knight said. “The U.S. business will need more capital as we look to expand production and execution into early 2021.”
Could that include a reverse merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) targeting electrification startups and newer businesses?
“We’re definitely looking at all options. So whatever the most attractive means to have more cash on the balance sheet to enable us to execute, we’ll consider it,” he said. “There are plenty of interested parties out there. We’ve been approached by a few.”