In order to achieve the environmental objectives and drastically limit global CO2 emissions, the transport sector must rely on several sustainable energy carriers. In addition to the rapid rise of battery-electric vehicles, hydrogen is becoming one of the important alternatives. TNO Traffic & Transport helps the energy transition move forward by, on the one hand, accelerating the market introduction of alternative fuels, such as hydrogen, and on the other, by providing effective policy support for governments.

The Paris Agreement calls for a 95% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. A difficult task for the mobility sector, which accounts for about a fifth of total emissions for the Netherlands and up to a quarter of the total emissions for the EU. Everything that drives, sails or flies in 2050 must be as economical as possible and powered by a sustainable energy carrier. For passenger cars, battery-electric vehicles are the most interesting option from an energetic point of view, now that the 'total cost of ownership' is falling rapidly due to the fast developing battery technology. Battery-electric is also probably the best option for regional distribution and city logistics. But what about heavy transport, where vehicles, ships and aircraft travel considerably longer distances? That is where hydrogen becomes an interesting alternative, expects TNO.

Why hydrogen?

In any case, hydrogen will play an important role in our economy. To make industrial processes more sustainable, but also, for example, to facilitate the storage of sustainably generated energy from sun and wind. That is why TNO is working on methods to scale up the production of green hydrogen. Hydrogen doesn’t require precious or scarce raw materials, so it helps the Netherlands and Europe to become less dependent on the outside world. Hydrogen can be used as an energy carrier in two ways: in a fuel cell or directly in a combustion engine. The fuel cell is an attractive, but still expensive solution: it only emits water. To keep costs within limits, TNO is working on life-extending technology for fuel cells. Alternatively, TNO sees a second application of hydrogen for heavy road transport and shipping, which can lead to a significant reduction in CO2 emissions: the hydrogen combustion engine.

Trusted technology becomes green

The efficiency level of a diesel engine in heavy-duty applications has come closer and closer to that of a fuel cell. Therefore, hydrogen becomes an attractive alternative to use as a direct fuel in a hydrogen combustion engine. This application is reliable and affordable because it uses the proven technology of the combustion engine. The production processes and maintenance methods are also tried-and-tested, which enables rapid implementation. An additional advantage is that virtually no scarce raw materials are needed. Due to the limited additional costs, this engine technology can provide significant growth in the demand for hydrogen in the transport sector within a short timespan. At TNO, we help vehicle and engine manufacturers to explore, develop and implement this technology. We have developed a first prototype of the hydrogen combustion engine for DAF in 2021, as a prelude to a longer-term collaboration to prepare this technology for large-scale application on the road.

Optimal refuelling infrastructure

At TNO, we look further than just the technology. To break through the chicken-and-egg situation with regard to the refuelling infrastructure, a rapid scaling up of the number of hydrogen vehicles is required, as well as cross-chain cooperation. That is why TNO, together with governments, manufacturers, energy companies, fleet owners and transporters, is looking for the best locations to build hydrogen-fuelling stations. Not unsystematically across the country, but very specifically at logistics hubs or important corridors, such as between Rotterdam and Venlo. As a result, a large part of the fleet can quickly run on hydrogen and the refuelling infrastructure is used more effectively from the start.

Building, sailing and flying on hydrogen?

Other modalities than road transport are becoming increasingly important in TNO's research. Diesel engines in trucks have become increasingly cleaner as a result of stricter emission standards, meaning there’s a smaller potential to further reduce air-polluting emission. In the current nitrogen crisis, for example, sustainable construction equipment and aggregates are needed to allow construction projects to continue. In shipping there is also great potential for environmental improvement, even if the energy alternatives are more limited. Batteries and hydrogen are not sufficient for deep sea shipping, so for these applications you need engines that can run on sustainable synthetic or biofuels.

For inland shipping, a lot of progress is being made with batteries and hydrogen, but sustainable diesel replacements are needed as well to accelerate sustainability. In aviation, where space and weight are even more important, hydrogen may only play a role for smaller aircraft, but only in the long term. For the medium term, bio kerosene and synthetic kerosene from green hydrogen and captured CO2 are important sustainability options. TNO is exploring these alternatives together with stakeholders and is developing efficient and affordable production methods.

What does TNO have to offer?

It is clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the energy transition of the entire transport sector. From an energy perspective, hydrogen is an attractive option for long-distance transport. But with zero emissions as a challenge for the entire sector, it is important to have multiple options available. That is why TNO is pursuing a multi-track policy, in which hydrogen is one of several sustainable alternatives that we will need.

At TNO, we work closely with our partners to seize opportunities to make the transport sector more sustainable. We are further developing hydrogen technology with engine and vehicle manufacturers. Our track record in engine technology and alternative fuels helps our partners to implement the hydrogen combustion engine, but also to set up production and service processes. Together with parties in logistics and energy suppliers, we are experimenting with electric and hydrogen trucks in various applications within the framework of the DKTI regulations. We look at the practical applicability of these alternatives, by determining both the 'tank-to-wheel' and the 'well-to-wheel' impact, and calculating the 'total cost of ownership'.

For governments, the added value of TNO lies, among other things, in supporting effective (source) policy and in orchestrating innovation, in which, in addition to the role of hydrogen, we look at the total spectrum of solutions for the transport sector.

A selection of crucial questions we help to answer for and together with our partners:

  • How can we organize logistics more efficiently and reduce the number of vehicle kilometres?
  • Can we make traffic and transport flows more sustainable with the help of connected and automated vehicles?
  • How do we successfully implement new technology, such as the hydrogen combustion engine, to achieve our climate goals?
  • What infrastructure is needed for this, and which legislation from Brussels and what tax measures from The Hague?

Want to know more?

Contact Jack Bloem who will answer your questions.

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Want to know more?

See below or download the infographic Hydrogen for internal combustion engines in heavy equipment.

Infographic: Hydrogen for internal combustion engines in heavy material
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Jack Bloem MSc

  • Heavy Duty Trucks