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Will Your Frozen Dinner Be Kept Cool By Hydrogen?

Since we’re not about to start driving hydrogen cars, keeping cold the trucks that bring us our food could be a perfect way to start using the alternative fuel in the hopes that it goes big.

Will Your Frozen Dinner Be Kept Cool By Hydrogen?
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

We’re all familiar with the soot-spewing exhaust pipes on truck diesel engines. They’re kind of hard to miss, and according to the Clean Air Task Force, they cause 21,000 premature deaths a year. What fewer people realize is that many trucks–some 300,000 in the United States–don’t come with just one engine, but also a separate, smaller diesel engine used to refrigerate the truck’s interior. These smaller trailer refrigeration units (TRUs), which haul veggies, frozen food, and beverages across the country, require about 10 gallons of diesel fuel a day and emit 100 kilograms of carbon dioxide.

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A new initiative overseen by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will be making a new, retrofitted TRU–the first of its kind with a refrigeration engine powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. In partnership with fuel cell manufacturers Nuvera and PlugPower, the pilot program will last two years and will deliver chilled foodstuffs to grocery stores in New York, Pennsylvania, California, and Texas.

A Nuvera fuel cell stack.

When it comes to hydrogen infrastructure, the U.S. lags far behind both Japan and Europe. But part of DOE’s goal is to identify small niche markets where diesel can be replaced by fuel cells, and then expand them. Chief engineer Kriston Brooks points to forklifts by way of example: Since 2008, the DOE has deployed more than 480 fuel cells for use in forklifts or emergency backup generators, bringing the cost of fuel cell energy down 30%. The department is also exploring fuel cell applications in the mini luggage trucks that zip around airports. One day, DOE engineers hope fuel cells will be able to compete with gasoline.

“We’re collecting data from these fuel cells, from the TRUs, and also the trucks, so we can know how far the trucks go in a day, how many stops they make, how many door openings they have,” Brooks told Co.Exist. “And then in terms of the fuel cell, we’re measuring what’s your voltage, what’s your amperage, how much hydrogen are you using. We can then provide that information to the industry and say: Hey, look at this. These systems will work and this is something you ought to consider.”

Part of the project’s first challenges will be to figure out where to actually place the fuel cell. If the fuel cell is put under the carriage, engineers have to make sure the system takes into account bumps in the road or other potential upsets that could disturb the highly flammable element. But after the designs are finalized, trucks will begin delivering groceries for food distributor Sysco and Texas supermarket chain H-E-B in 2015.

“One of the purposes of this study is to build up [hydrogen] infrastructure,” Brooks added. “As the infrastructure expands and you’ve got more and more hydrogen filling stations, suddenly you’ve got more cars that are run on hydrogen, your trucks run on hydrogen, buses, all the different transportation can then use hydrogen. This is sort of the baby steps to get from where we are now to extending the markets where fuel cells can be used,” he says.

Currently, hydrogen fuel cells go for some $20,000, but Brooks hopes that by demonstrating their efficiency, as well as subsidy plans, the market will eventually take over and make fuel cells an economically viable option.

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“If I can play even a small part in getting to the point where fuel cell prices begin to drop, that would be cool,” he said.

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About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data

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