Environment

Cold transport trucks to cool their cargo using fuel cells

Cold transport trucks to cool ...
The US Department of Energy will be using fuel cells to power the refrigeration units of four cold transport trailers (Photo: Shutterstock)
The US Department of Energy will be using fuel cells to power the refrigeration units of four cold transport trailers (Photo: Shutterstock)
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The US Department of Energy will be using fuel cells to power the refrigeration units of four cold transport trailers (Photo: Shutterstock)
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The US Department of Energy will be using fuel cells to power the refrigeration units of four cold transport trailers (Photo: Shutterstock)
One of Nuvera's Orion fuel cells
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One of Nuvera's Orion fuel cells

The refrigeration units used in cold transport trailers are typically powered by small diesel engines, which use up non-renewable fuel and release greenhouse gases, just like their big brothers. The US Department of Energy, however, is looking into an alternative. As part of a two-year pilot project, it’s equipping four such trailers with clean-running hydrogen fuel cells.

Massachusetts fuel cell manufacturer Nuvera is supplying two of the cells, while New York-based Plug Power Inc. will provide the other two. Each company is receiving US$650,000 from the Department of Energy for the project, and will provide matching funds of their own.

One of Nuvera's Orion fuel cells
One of Nuvera's Orion fuel cells

The tractor units pulling the trailers will still have their regular diesel engines. Without having to use additional fuel to run the refrigeration units, however, it is estimated that each truck should save approximately 10 US gallons (38 liters) of diesel per day. They should also release considerably less pollutants, plus as a side benefit, the units should run much more quietly.

The demo rigs will be servicing Sysco Corp food distribution facilities in California, Texas, and New York, delivering food from the facilities to stores or other outlets. It is hoped that the project will illustrate how the higher costs of fuel cells can be offset by fuel savings.

Source: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

31 comments
Slowburn
Hydrogen is expensive to make. Hydrogen is expensive to distribute. Hydrogen is hard to hold onto and makes many metals brittle. Fuel cells are expensive. Fuel cells are fragile. Fuel cells generate electricity so that the has to be expensive and inefficient or have an electric motor. A heat pump is a constant load load device making it easy to run the diesel engine on alternative fuels. They are trying to fix a 2 dollar problem with a 10 dollar solution. There are better and easier ways of dealing with the problem. I would prefer to add pneumatic regenerative braking to the trailer compressing air to a very high presser and use the expanding gas to cool the cargo. In the name of efficiency I will use the cold from the expanding gas as it drives the compressed air engine that drives the heat pump to to help the heat pump cool the cargo. This design will also save brake pads and provide compressed air for the tires.
BigGoofyGuy
slowburn, there are a lot of advances in fuel cells. The are making newer fuel cells that do not cost a lot. There are ways to produce hydrogen that do not cost a lot. There are even home refuelling stations that are affordable. Fuel cells have become sturdier and smaller. Ways to store hydrogen has improved. I think this is a good idea. The only exhaust from a fuel cell is water. It is very green. I think it is the way of the future.
bergamot69
Slowburn, Regenerative braking would be fine up to a point. Trouble is, these trailers spend a significant part of their daily work cycle stationary, and whilst when at their base they could plug in to mains electricity, when spending the night at a truck stop it is unlikely that they could access mains power. However, a non-diesel powered refrigeration system would be more welcome by other truck drivers- many of whom have lost sleep at truck stops when a 'reefer' parks up next to them because of the very intrusive noise. There are existing production fuel cells that run on ethanol which would probably be a better fuel than hydrogen, as ethanol is pretty cheap to produce (it can be produced from waste vegetable matter).
VirtualGathis
Using fuel cells just seems foolish to me. Why go through the effort of creating an expensive difficult to fuel device like fuel cells for cooling when we have absorbtion chillers that can do the trick with basic science and the waste heat in the vehicles exhaust? You just build the chiller in the trailer and a heat collection system in the exhaust of the truck and use a non boiling fluid as heat transfer medium to the trailer unit. Or you could reverse that and put the chiller at the exhaust and have it cool a non-freezing solution and deliver chilled coolant to the trailer.
Stradric
Slowburn sounds like he's on the payroll at Exxon. I've never seen someone poo-poo such a tiny little trial program so profoundly unless they have an agenda. If we always listened to the naysayers, where would we be now? Progress is made by programs like this. Appealing for the status quo never got us anywhere.
morongobill
What about your agenda Stradric? While you might disagree, at least he made logical points and offered up an alternative- without resorting to name calling.
Slowburn
@ BigWarpGuy Using platinum as the catalyst to generate 1 watt second of hydrogen from water it takes 1.8 watt seconds of electricity, and then you have to compress it. I generate a little hydrogen for floaty balloons by using waste caustics on trash aluminum foil (the scrapyard does not accept aluminum foil.) but I would rather see the aluminum reused. I was thinking that adding the foil to the alumina mix at the smelter could solve the difficulties and still save energy in producing useful metal. Part of the fragility of fuel cells is their susceptibility to being poisoned. @ bergamot69 These trucks weigh about 70tons loaded slowing them down can provide a lot of power and it can be stored pneumatically faster than in can as electricity. The diesel powered reefers I have heard in the last 20 years are pretty quit. American truck stops are already providing in cab climate control, electricity, and entertainment at lower cost than idling the truck I do not see any real difficulty in adding enough electricity to drive the reefer as a problem. Purifying the alcohol is an energy intensive process. @ Stradric My agenda is to exchange information and opinions to teach and learn. Suggesting alternate fuels for the existing engines, and an alternate engine that DOES NOT USE OIL is not "Appealing for the status quo" and pretty much proves I don't work for an oil company. Do you work in the Fuel cell industry or do you just think fuel cells are really cool? I think that using gamma emitters to generate heat in tungsten to power an ammonia absorption or Stirling Cycle engine would be really cool but in the current terror environment I don't want to see thousands or even dozens of them on the road.
Paul Bedichek
H2 used in fuel cells is very efficient,we already use vast amounts of it.Next gen nuclear plants can produce H2 with no CO2,this is an excellent demo.
Kevin3778
@Bigwarpguy Can you tell me where this "green" fuel source of hydrogen that we use comes from?
Jay Finke
Seems to me there is a lot of real estate on a truck trailer, and solar would be a good alternative. It could be used to run fans,charge (one or two) batteries required by the truck and it's reefer . and peltier junctions, all reducing the run-time and load on the old faithful back-up diesel cooling/heating system. Regenerative systems is a great idea, but when it comes to brakes I think KISS is the best idea, I could only imagine the hardware needed to accomplish this task, and the crazy amount of service required to maintain it . Now if it could be mounted on the 5th wheel truck tractor mount that might be something simple that could help generate that free lost energy. but might have a negative effect braking and steering ? I'm not that smart but am willing to practice on someone else's equipment, just not mine ! All I require to do this is free beer and a open checkbook.