Oil companies Shell and OMV have teamed up with three leading heavy-vehicle manufacturers to decarbonise Europe’s truck sector through clean hydrogen.

The new collaboration with Volvo, Daimler and Iveco, called H2Accelerate, aims to “create the conditions for the mass-market roll-out of hydrogen trucks in Europe... [through] synchronized investments across the sector during the 2020s”, according to a statement from the five companies.

This roll-out will involve four different elements — the build-out of green- and blue-hydrogen production facilities, large-scale H2 distribution systems, a network of refuelling stations and fuel-cell trucks.

The collaboration envisages a proof-of-concept first phase that will see hundreds of hydrogen-powered trucks and more than 20 refuelling stations in regional clusters and along “high capacity corridors”. A second phase in the late 2020s would see thousands of fuel-cell trucks produced each year and the establishment of a Europe-wide refuelling network.

The statement also acknowledges that “throughout the scale-up, support from the public sector will be required”.

The partners will therefore work together to seek funding for early pre-commercial projects, while simultaneously lobbying policymakers and regulators to create a policy environment that supports the scale-up of hydrogen trucks and a Europe-wide hydrogen refuelling network.

“Hydrogen-fuelled trucks will need to become available to customers at or below the cost of owning and operating a diesel truck today. This means truck customers will need to have access to a fully zero-emissions vehicle with a similar refuelling time, range and cost range compared to the vehicles in use today,” said Elisabeth Brinton, executive vice-president at Shell New Energies.

“To achieve this ambition a clear regulatory framework is needed, including policies addressing the supply of hydrogen, hydrogen-fuelled trucks, refuelling infrastructure and consumer incentives in a coordinated way.”

Martin Daum, chairman of Daimler Truck — which formed a fuel-cell joint venture with Volvo earlier this year — added: “This unprecedented collaboration is an important milestone for driving forward the right framework conditions for establishing a mass market for hydrogen-based trucking. It is also a call to action for policymakers, further players involved and society as a whole.”

Hydrogen is widely seen as the most viable method for decarbonising long-distance trucking, due to the smaller range of battery-powered vehicles, although innovators such as Tesla’s Elon Musk believe that battery-powered electric trucks offer a more viable long-term solution due to their greater energy efficiency and lower running costs.

Green, blue and grey hydrogen

More than 95% of the hydrogen produced today is derived from unabated fossil fuels (natural gas or coal), resulting in nine to 12 tonnes of CO2 emissions for every tonne of H2. This is known as grey hydrogen.

However, 'green hydrogen' can be produced with zero emissions by using renewable electricity to split water molecules into H2 and oxygen inside a machine called an electrolyser; a process known as electrolysis.

Or the CO2 emissions from natural-gas-based H2 production can be captured and stored, resulting in what is known as blue hydrogen. Strictly speaking, this would be classed as low-carbon hydrogen as not all the CO2 from the production process can be captured.