Hydrogen fuel cell start up company Nikola has helped make its founder Trevor Milton a multi-billionaire  thanks to the startling debut the company has made on the US Nasdaq exchange in recent weeks.

It may take a few years for us to know if the company’s plan to clean up trucking with zero-emission trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells can  be as successful and prosperous as it hopes but the debut on the Nasdaq was spectacular with the market valuing the operation at around $AUD17 billion.

Nikola’s start as a publicly listed company saw Milton, who is the largest stock holder in the organisation, holding a stake of around $AUD4.9 billion The stock rose almost five per cent on the first day on its first day on the market, and confounded analysts who had valued it a third of that value only mid-way through 2019 .

Interest in the company has been rising in recent months, and not just from investors ahead of the Nasdaq listing.

Milton told the media that the company is now talking with almost every major OEM in the world. In part, that’s due to the addition of Steve Girsky, a former vice chairman of  General Motors  to the Nikola’s board. This came about because Nikola mounted an unusual reverse merger with Girsky’s publicly traded VectoIQ, which was completed on the 2nd June.  This meant that Nikola’s Nasdaq listing happened in a very short space of time.

“It’s interesting, the groups that have been more open to working with us are ones you’d probably not expect,” said Milton.

Nikola has already partnered with Iveco in Europe, with the CNH organisation taking a $AUD 361 million stake in  the hydrogen start up, with Iveco wanting to fast track the technology to enable it to build both hydrogen fuel cell  and battery-electric versions of its trucks for Europe starting next year. Nikola  is also working with Bosch, Meritor and several other manufacturers specializing in the commercial vehicle space.

Nikola has secured truck orders worth close to $AUD14 billion from companies led by Anheuser-Busch, which wants 800 of its zero emission prime movers.

Like the computer tech companies of the 1990s Nikola hasn’t generated much revenue yet, but its sales estimates will it believes jump from $AUD216 million next year to $AUD4.6 billion by 2024 as it ramps up production.

By 2024, Nikola expects to sell or lease 7,000 battery-powered units and around 5,000 hydrogen fuel cell trucks, according to its filing.

While the company has yet to deliver trucks to commercial customers, there’s been a steady uptick in interest in hydrogen for heavy-duty trucks, particularly long-haul vehicles, as fuel cell power systems are much lighter than batteries and can be re-fuelled about as fast as diesel and petrol powered vehicles.

Along with Iveco, Bosch and Meritor, Nikola also counts South Korean solar panel maker Hanwha and Norway’s Nel as key industrial partners that helping get it sci-fi-styled semis on the road and fueled up.

Like Elon Musk’s Tesla, Nikola plans to build and operate fuel stations to support its vehicles.

It recently announced plans to buy about $AUD43 million of hydrogen production equipment to enable it produce 40,000 kilograms of hydrogen a day from water and renewable electricity.

“These electrolyzers will support five heavy duty hydrogen stations which will cover multiple states and trucking routes,” Milton said.

The first are dipped to be in placed in California, which has attractive incentives for non-polluting trucks to help curb carbon emissions.

Fuel cell technology makes electricity in a chemical reaction using hydrogen and oxygen with only water vapor as a by-product. The fuel cell technology  has been around since the 1960s, but early iterations were too costly and not durable enough for heavy daily use.

The cost equation has changed dramatically in the past decade, with costs for the materials and fuel tanks dropping steadily as the technology matured.

While industrial hydrogen has been typically extracted from water using  natural gas, the truly environmentally friendly way to deliver it is called “green” hydrogen, using electricity from solar or wind farms to extract it making hydrogen much more compelling to environmental regulators in places like California, Europe, Japan, South Korea and China.

While Nikola’s hydrogen fuel cell truck and its plans  for a hydrogen fuel network are ambitious, it faces competition in the space from big players including Hyundai and Toyota.

Toyota has been testing hydrogen fuel cell trucks at the Port of Los Angeles for years and Hyundai recently opened South Korea’s first hydrogen fuel station for commercial vehicles.