If  you thought that advanced technologies for zero emission vehicles like hydrogen fuel cells are a long way off then think again.

That’s the message from Horizon Fuel Cells, a Singapore headquartered, international company, which includes some key Australian involvement and management,  which has been developing and marketing its hydrogen fuel cell systems for the past 17 years, and currently has hundreds of hydrogen fuel cell buses and trucks running in Asia. We sat down with its Australian boss to find out about its plans for hydrogen commercial vehicles in this country

Horizon was started in Singapore back in 2003, with an International team and has since moved its engineering and manufacturing base to China for manufacturing logistics reasons. Now after 17 years they have established an automotive subsidiary, Hyzon Motors.

Managing director and CEO of Hyzon parent company Horizon Fuel Cells, Craig Knight is an Australian,  and one of the founders of the company. Knight  is an industrial chemist by profession, so he knows a thing or two about the chemistry of fuel cells and brings a vast knowledge of the hydrogen fuel cell process and business.

“The key is material science, the material you use, “ says Craig Knight.

“We have been developing and building hydrogen fuel cells for the past 17 years, so we have a huge store of IP knowledge  and a track record of safety and reliability,” Craig told us.

The company started with small fuel cell systems that they initially sold into education and for use in ‘toys’, as well as R&D programmes globally, and in portable OEM power products, where they were the intel inside the end product. In other words, they provided the fuel cell for use inside other company’s branded products.

“We came at the whole fuel cell thing from a material angle, as we believe the material science in the fuel cells is really the most important thing, the engineering side is fairly routine and mechanical, it is the material in the fuel cell that gives you the performance levels, longevity and reliability,” he adds.

“We got into this business because we liked the technology, we had a vision that we could really do something with it one day,  but we knew if we got into it, we had to start small, so our motto has always been ‘think big, start small’.

“We’ve got some pretty deep IP around fuel cells and fuel cell systems with expertise from around the world, but we set up operations in China because that is the place that gave us access to the number of people we needed for the engineering and manufacturing capabilities, and to be able to afford them,” Craig adds.

The premise of Horizon sounds a bit like an old multi-racial gag, a French guy, a Chinese guy in the US, a guy from Hong Kong and an Australian formed a company. But far from being a joke, these guys were  absolutely serious and from that original partnership a very International company was born.

As part of the effort to accelerate hydrogen adoption in the automotive sector, and broaden their role from supplying Fuel Cell powertrains , Horizon formed Hyzon Motors, an amalgam of the Horizon name and its hydrogen capability, in other words Hydrogen by Horizon or Hyzon. Hyzon Motors is new actively chasing Australian sales in zero emission buses and trucks from its base in the USA.

Knight emphasises that Hyzon Motors leverages those 17 years of fuel cell technology development within Horizon, and combines this with a newly assembled, highly qualified leadership team with vast Internal Combustion Engine and Electric Vehicle experience.

Knight says Hyzon Motors will be the first fuel cell commercial vehicle manufacturer in series production in the USA, leveraging the substantial field experience gained by parent company Horizon, to ensure all vehicles perform reliably and effectively in deployment scenarios. It’s a bold claim but speak with Knight for any length of time and  his determination and focus are clearly evident.

“Our objective is to reach absolute efficiency and sustainability with all that we do,” Craig told Coach & Bus.

“The aim for Hyzon heavy vehicles is to reduce energy consumption, to capture maximum efficiency from our industry leading Fuel Cell Power Systems, he adds.

China’s air pollution situation and government will is accelerating the development of fuel cell technology as are government incentives and legislation in Europe, which is something that has enabled and encouraged Horizon to lift the pace of its heavy vehicle fuel cell programs.

“The tech is finally ready for the challenge, but it’s the external factors have brought things along a lot faster  than we had anticipated, and there  are three things that  have  really driven it,” Craig Knight explains.

“The first thing is China, you cannot discount the extent to which China has made things happen, look at the way things have developed with batteries and solar panels which have been driven largely by China as a marketing and manufacturing base,” he said.

“So, by moving the heavier duty vehicles like buses and trucks in China on to electric and hydrogen electric fuel cells, that has created demand that would have taken years to develop on its own,” Knight adds.

“That has been hugely beneficial, we have been able to invest in technology and manufacturing capability, which we couldn’t do before, because we just didn’t have the volume to justify it, so we are able to put in more automation and drive unit costs down.”

“The more you do the cheaper it gets , it is the Plasma LED TV model really, when Plasma and flat screen TV’s first hit the market they cost $25000 and within a relatively short time  they cost less than $1000.”

Knight says the second big motivator has been  the commitment from Euro countries.

“Denmark, Norway, Germany etc. are clearly pro-hydrogen and have encouraged investment in hydrogen, electric motors, control systems and the like, and this has driven things and led to the development of the whole supply chain.”

“For instance, if you tried to go out and source a 450kW electric motor to drive an electric truck five years ago  it would have been difficult and very expensive,  but now because of the government subsidies and incentives, the whole supply chain had to evolve, so its encouraged a supply chain to build up around it ,”  Knight explains.

The third thing he identifies is the general global desire to decarbonise and also the corporate will to demonstrate you are starting the journey to decarbonise business activities, especially diesel powered vehicle operations.

“This is only going to accelerate with global attention on what has been going on in Australia over the past summer with bushfires and the focus on climate change,” he said.

“Those external factors are very important, it wouldn’t have mattered how hard we worked in our labs and our factory if the external factors weren’t there to help us along it wouldn’t have happened as quickly. Fortunately, we have been able to accumulate a lot of valuable experience over the years that has enabled us to jump on this with pretty good speed,” he adds.

Knight says a significant number of the hydrogen fuel cell buses and trucks currently being deployed in China are equipped with Horizon fuel cells.

One of the inspirations for Horizon to push into zero emission fleet operations was a little known but very interesting forklift and materials handling company in the USA called Plug Power. For around two years Knight studied the Plug Power model in the US to understand how they had deployed tens of thousands of fuel cell powered forklifts in sensitive warehouse operations for material handling.

“I was quite fascinated by the commercial deployments because the entire industry was aware that the majority of their deployments historically used third party fuel cells and the fuel cells weren’t ours, they were from another fuel cell supplier,” said Knight.

“It interested me that so many customers were buying from Plug Power some kind of solution where they weren’t spending years to validate the technology, and didn’t even know who had built the fuel cells,”  he said. “That encouraged me enormously because I could see the potential to promote a similar model for zero emission back to base transport fleets where the customer was buying a highly dependable service, they were not focused on the technology within the vehicle, which can take years to fully comprehend and accept.”

“It was very innovative for Plug Power to never sell a single machine, only to lease them, as this they took away the technology anxiety from the customer by telling them that they don’t have to worry what was in the box,” said Craig.

“Plus assured their customers they would guarantee a working, clean, zero emission forklift, and that Plug Power engineers would be on hand in their warehouses and work with their engineering team to make sure everything ran without problems and disruptions.”

“It wasn’t all plain sailing, Plug Power had to change a lot of stuff, fix a lot of stuff and throw a lot of stuff out, but there are roughly 30000 forklifts systems working around the US on hydrogen fuel cells to date, and the customers love them.

Knight explains that the material handling situation in closed warehousing (especially food grade facilities) is absolutely perfect for hydrogen fuel cells, because  they operate in confined spaces where you can’t use internal combustion engines, so they need zero emission power.  A large number of distribution centre warehouses in the USA are 24/7 and use battery electric power. Unfortunately, 24/7 doesn’t really work for battery electric, because you need time to charge the batteries. The alternative is to change  batteries, but this is also a complex and time consuming process.

“If  you have to change the batteries, this can be a 40 minute process and it presents all sorts of OH& S challenges because the battery packs can weigh up to 600kg ,” said Knight.

“Companies doing this found that all the workplace injuries were coming from changing the batteries over and getting  the battery packs on to the charging stations, it is slow and troublesome. If you are spending 40 minutes or more to change a battery pack at the end of an eight hour shift then you are are losing almost an eighth of the shift in terms of productivity and the charging racks take up a tonne of space.”

Knight says the other factor that accelerated Plug Power’s hydrogen fuel cell forklift uptake was the deployment of fork trucks in refrigerated warehouses and cold environments because batteries don’t like cold, so the voltage drop in a refrigerated warehouse is  very steep.  In a freezer warehouse, it happens much more quickly, costing hours a day on every bit of forklift machinery with battery changing and losing charge etc.

“There is typically a 30 to 40 per cent improvement on pallet movements by each piece of forklift equipment in frozen food warehouse operations when busy locations switch from battery to hydrogen fuel cell technology,” said Knight.

“That doesn’t include the fact that many have been able to repurpose whole sections of their warehouses, and they can now rent that area out or better utilise the space, which before was a cost because it was  full of battery charging equipment and personnel managing  the process. So, they took out a bunch of cost and adding in a bunch of revenue,” he said.

Knight emphasises that while forklifts in warehouses clearly aren’t equivalent to buses or trucks running on public roads, he still believes that Plug Power’s model was very interesting and very prescient for commercial road transport .

“The key, as I say, was that they took away the technology concerns and they took away  the investment barrier,” he said.

“Fuel cells are expensive, that’s the mantra everyone will give you when talking about the technology, but they negated that by offering a lease price that was the same cost as running on battery electric forklifts, and that is the model that will win over bus and truck operators to hydrogen fuel cell power trains,” he added.

While others speak of battery electric vehicles being ideal for daily back to base operations, Knight believes deploying hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in this environment will not only be  more viable cost wise but also will help justify the necessary hydrogen fuelling infrastructure.

“After we understood the Plug model, you realise a forklift operation is just a back to base logistics model and many bus and truck operations are also back to base. As the vehicles are higher value and need a lot more power (hence hydrogen as fuel), that provides much greater critical mass in the business model, and our bus and truck projects will overshadow the forklift concept, because the systems are so much bigger and much higher value; also higher impact in terms of environmental factors.”

“There are already around 100 privately owned hydrogen filling stations in the USA at the moment, and while I can’t tell you where they all are, this fact illustrates that the economics are there to set fuelling stations up to power materials handling equipment when you have enough of them,” said Knight.

Knight says Horizon is already talking with Hydrogen suppliers about establishing transportable hydrogen fuelling stations.

“There is a myriad of bureaucracy tied up in building permanent hydrogen fuelling stations, but if it is a trailer and not a permanent structure then we can place a transportable fuelling facility much more quickly and less expensively,” he added.

“We are working with our partners to have a fleet of mobile fuelling systems because waiting for fixed hydrogen fuelling stations will be a slow and very circuitous process that would slow down the roll out enormously.

One of the most exciting things for fuel cell adherents is that green hydrogen is coming, and large-scale green hydrogen production has the potential to enable heavy vehicle fleet operations to run at a lower price level than diesel, Knight reckons.

“We already have MOUs with green hydrogen suppliers in Australia whose green hydrogen pricing  when we start will be around  $8 AUD per kilo dispensed  into the vehicle,” he said.

“Our aim is to get that $8 down to $AUD5 per kilo over the next couple of years, and that will happen with volume. While even at $AUD8 we will be pushing parity with the cost structures of diesel engines in heavy buses and trucks, at $5 per kilo they will be hitting diesel cost structures out of the park,” he adds.

“It will be cheaper, and it will be zero emission and it will also be much more efficient than either diesel or battery electric vehicles.

“The efficiency of a fuel cell stack is almost 60 per cent, and when you integrate a fuel cell for powering an electric power train the efficiency is about 45 per cent, but the efficiency of a diesel engine is only about 20 per cent,” says Knight.

Craig says that the other environmental headache that comes with battery electric vehicles is that the chemistry of the batteries can never be undone, whereas the elements inside a fuel cell can  be reworked, recycled and re-used .

“You also get a lot more yield out of a fuel cell and they are fully recyclable, there is no waste issue as there is a with a battery, it is a one way trip for chemicals in a battery.”

“Basically, a fuel cell uses aluminium, graphite, titanium and platinum, so you simply don’t have that compromise with a fuel cell because you can reuse every part of the cell by recycling and repurposing.

“With a battery you have either a weight compromise or a range compromise, or both with some BEVs, however a hydrogen fuel cell has neither, and since it supplies DC power just like a battery, you have the same benefits of an electric driveline with torque and power, but without the range anxiety or the battery weight trade-offs.

While Knight emphasises that the Hyzon Motors model will follow the Plug leasing model and take away the longevity and technology anxiety, the other question that arises with Hydrogen fuel cells is how long do they last?

Knight holds up the commonly held wisdom that the life of a commercial vehicle diesel engine is about 800,000 to one million kilometres before an overhaul or scrapping. By comparison a Hydrogen Fuel Cell designed for a commercial vehicle aims to operate effectively for at least 20,000 hours and possibly up to 30,000 hours. To give that some relevance,  a bus or truck averaging 60 km/h would take around 17000hours to cover one million kilometres, so potentially, fuel cell life of 20,000 to 30,000 hours could see the vehicle covering around 1.5 to 1.8 million kilometres before the fuel cell life needs to be recycled.

While other hydrogen vehicle proponents are saying the technology is about five to ten years away, Knight says Hyzon is already there and the company is ready to take advantage of this gap in the market.

“We have major global companies partnering with Hyzon on electric motors and other core components, as well as Type 4 hydrogen storage tanks. Since we can deploy these vehicles right now, why the hell should we wait?” challenges Knight.

“One of the big factors regarding the need to reduce emissions to benefit the environment is that you have got to start somewhere and at the moment we are only deploying hundreds of zero emission vehicles, but we need to deploy millions to make a real difference,” said Knight.

It must be underlined that Hyzon Motors will essentially produce the FCEV drive trains to power trucks and buses and it already has agreements with a number of OEM vehicle makers to integrate these power trains into existing vehicle platforms in countries outside its well established base in China. Some of those vehicles will bear the name plates of these OEMS, while others will bear the Hyzon badge.

“I’d say one to two years ago, it was near impossible to get OEMs interested, so we started to do things  ourselves,  we started things moving and reckoned that we would try to figure out how to fund it later, so we started investing in developing larger capacity fuel cells” said Knight.

“Then six months ago the OEMS started to get interested, they started to answer the phone, then they started calling us and in the past three months it has just gone insane and the recent feedback has been amazing, everything has started to change, and the attitude has changed,” he added.

Craig says the company made the pitch to investors asking them if they want a three to five year head start on a business model that is going to go ballistic in commercial vehicles, then they can join us, and we can deliver because we are going to jump into this gap in the market. We have some serious investors on board to help us resource this model properly.

“Our first manufacturing capability is in China and  we have already taken possession of a terrific production and integration site in the USA, in upstate New York, and we will start with system integrations there in the coming six months.

“We will stage our ramp-up in the USA, by first shipping the core fuel cell stack to the US  from China, and we will do the peripheral system integration as well as the vehicle integration locally in America for deployment in the US market, so we will be deploying fuel cell powered heavy vehicles in the US from our local factory later this year, and will be the only company to be doing so in series production before the end of 2020,” he adds.

“It was critical that  we had a plant in the USA to create some clear air given the trade tensions between China and America.”

In Australia, Hyzon is working with a bus maker to create fuel cell buses on imported chassis with the bus body completed locally. Knight is at pains to point out that they are not prepared to compromise on quality, safety and performance and will only be working with quality OEM suppliers

“Hyzon Motors is going to market using the Horizon hydrogen fuel cell technology built up over the past 17 years, with all the IP behind it along with the more than a million kilometres covered by the  trucks and buses already powered in China and the more than 1.5 million fuel cells we have sold globally, so we leverage a lot of highly valuable experience,” he said.

“Our goal is to essentially offer best in class in safety and environmental impact, and the performance of each vehicle platform has to be at least as good as the traditional fossil fuel versions, but our aim is for them all to be better.”

“They will have better torque, better power, efficiency and economy, and there needs to be no compromise on specs at all in any possible way. Simply put, everything has to be the best, and this will facilitate rapid acceptance with drivers and fleet operators,” he adds.

“At the moment we are the only company making 150 kW fuel cell modules, but we have already designed a 370kW module and our aim is that we are going to use these for very high power applications, including the famous Australian road trains towing 135t. We are committed to be the first hydrogen fuel cell company to power a road train,” Knight says with a grin.