The Department of Energy awarded electric truck developer Nikola Motor Co. a $1.7 million federal grant to pursue advanced fuel cell membrane-assembly technology.
The Phoenix, Ariz.- area company is a major proponent of fuel-cell electric powertrains for heavy trucks. It said it has advance orders for more than 14,000 Class 8 Nikola trucks, most of them using fuel cell systems.
Nikola will use the federal grant to research development of a more efficient way of assembling fuel cell membrane electrodes to increase durability and improve power output.
Fuel cells generate electricity in a thermo-chemical process that passes compressed hydrogen gas and oxygen through catalyst-coated membranes. The process of combining the two generates electricity, and also produces water. The water is used to cool down the reaction and forms the system’s only emission – typically water vapor.
The grant will fund a project in which Nikola’s fuel cell researchers will team with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., Northwestern University in Chicago and Atlanta-based Georgia Institute of Technology.
They want to create a process that can utilize the most advanced fuel cell components to produce electrode membranes that can reliably handle heavy-duty applications needed for long-distance freight trucks.
Nikola’s team will be able to leverage academic expertise, Energy Department resources and its own research “to accelerate a breakthrough that will benefit the entire hydrogen and fuel cell industry,” said Jesse Schneider, head of Nikola’s fuel cell technologies effort.
The Energy Department will provide resources through its Fuel Cell Consortium for Performance and Durability.
The department awarded the grant under its $51 million Commercial Trucks and Off-Road Applications program for the 2019 fiscal year.
Separately, Nikola and Norway’s NEL Hydrogen are being considered for a $2 million hydrogen fuel-development award from the Energy Department. NELs and Nikola are partners in the development of commercial hydrogen fueling stations for Nikola trucks.
Nikola has said it already is building trucks for fleet testing and will begin producing trucks for commercial customers in 2022. The company will build battery-electric trucks as well as fuel cell electric models, but expects the fuel cell trucks to make up the bulk of its business.
Rival electric semi-truck developer Tesla has said it will have its battery-electric Class 8 truck in production in 2020. Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has said he doesn’t believe that fuel cell technology is viable for electric cars or trucks. Toyota Motor Corp. also is developing heavy-duty fuel cell trucks.