Volvo Fuel Cell Venture Tackles Truck Idling

Practical, affordable fuel cell vehicles may be decades away from your driveway, but it’s not stopping continued interest from large automakers. And instead of full fuel cell propulsion systems, small steps could offer an effective bridge for the technology. The latest company to jump aboard is Volvo which will initially focus on placement of small fuel cells in trucks to offset fuel usage and emissions during idling.

Particularly in North America, many truck drivers are forced to run at idle to provide the electrical power for air-conditioning and other equipment that is needed for the driver to live onboard. However, running at idle involves unnecessary emissions and is a major environmental problem. According to calculations carried out by the US Department of Energy, a power unit with fuel cell technology could reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide from a single truck by between 20 to 30 tons annually. In the same manner, the emission of nitrogen oxides could also be reduced significantly. In an effort to solve this problem, Sweden-based Volvo is now starting a joint-venture company for the development of power units based on fuel cell technology. The power unit features a newly patented technology and is so compact that they can be installed in standard trucks. The new company, Powercell, is owned jointly by Volvo Technology (VTEC) and Statoil. Powercell holds the patent on an improved fuel cell technology that makes it possible to produce such small and effective power units that they can be mounted in trucks and other vehicles to replace the current that is normally generated through operating the engine at idle. The fuel cell is powered by hydrogen gas that is produced from the diesel onboard. As a result, trucks would not have to run at idle to have an electrical supply when they are parked. According to the Truck Manufacturers Association (TMA), there are about 500,000 heavy trucks in North America in which the driver lives onboard. If the emissions from these trucks could be reduced by 30 tons per truck and year, this would represent a reduction of 15 million tons – more than one fourth of the total annual emissions for all of Sweden. “Through use of fuel cell technology in the power unit, you can reduce emissions sharply, while at the same time the unit can be made substantially smaller,” says Goran Wirmark, Manager, Energy Conversion & Physics, at VTEC. “Long term, power units driven by fuel cells will also be used in boats, aircraft and other mobile units in which there is a need for a compact, environmentally sound and efficient power supply.”

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