Diesel trucks bring fresh food, clean water, fuel, raw materials, and life-saving medical equipment. They’re the most efficient and effective shipping method in most situations, sustaining the lives of billions of people with the goods they transport.
Diesel-powered trucks also bring cancer, pollution, cardiovascular health effects, and global climate change.
Trevor Milton, founder and CEO of Nikola Motors, holds to the credo that the electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles. And what he is doing could be every bit as monumental as the invention of the light bulb.
He’s looking far beyond incremental improvements in diesel engines: he and his team are building a fleet of trucks powered by liquid hydrogen.
As a fuel, hydrogen has a number of striking benefits. Prices at the pump remind us every day that petroleum is a scarce resource: hydrogen is the most abundant element in the entire universe. How abundant is that? Scientists estimate that 75-90% of the mass of the universe is hydrogen. Because of this, Nikola Motors will provide the first million miles worth of fuel for free with every vehicle.
Nikola trucks aren’t fueled by hydrogen in the same way that diesel trucks are fueled directly by the combustion of diesel. Instead, the truck’s supply of liquid hydrogen is used to generate electricity, which powers an electric motor.
Hydrogen-powered electric motors outperform diesel engines in just about every way. Electric motors hit peak torque almost instantly, which means that Nikola’s trucks accelerate twice as fast as their diesel cousins. They also get between 2-3 times the miles per gallon of diesel trucks—with twice the horsepower. And because Nikola was able to cut about 2,000 pounds from the chassis, the trucks can haul more product.
And the biggest benefit, of course, is the fact that hydrogen-electric trucks produce zero harmful fumes. In fact, the only by-product of a motor fueled by hydrogen is water droplets. The trucks fuel up with liquid hydrogen in about the same time it takes to fill up a conventional truck with diesel—a huge advantage over purely electric vehicles. And because of superior fuel-efficiency, hydrogen trucks only have to fill up about half as often as diesel trucks.
One obvious issue this raises is the production of the liquid hydrogen—while hydrogen is abundant, vast wells of pure liquid hydrogen are not. Thankfully, the production of liquid hydrogen is an energy-efficient process that can be accomplished at the fueling site with renewable energy sources like solar—which means that in the near future, fueling stations may not need to be supplied by trucks and ships transporting poisonous, explosive fuel over land and sea.
A network of Nikola fueling stations might enable the rise of hydrogen-powered cars. Property of Nikola Motor Company.
Nikola has plans for 16 hydrogen fueling stations to be built in the immediate future—but they will obviously need a lot more in the long term. These fueling stations will provide free fuel to Nikola owners, but drivers of other hydrogen-electric vehicles will still be able to fill up at a charge.
Standard diesel trucks emit well over 500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year (about 12.5% of the total)—and that’s just in the US. While Nikola can’t fix the problem overnight, they are paving the way to a future with significantly cleaner air. If hydrogen-electric power replaced every semi on our roads, we’d enjoy a historic drop in pollution (and noise). But if this technology works for trucks, what would it take to be adopted by cars, planes, and freight liners? It’s a thrilling thought.
Nikola Motors is yet another example of a transformative Market Invention coming out of the private sector. Sure, government regulations on emissions have helped, but they couldn’t do much more than slow the petroleum-fueled bleeding. It’s often market inventors like Nikola that represent our best chances of really shifting gears and moving towards a greener future.
About Trevor Stauffer
Trevor unites a passion for clarity with a love of beauty in his approach to writing.
His academic mastery of great writers gave him a strong foundation in classical writing skills, and his time teaching English in Spain taught him to strip language down to a basic, universal essence. For Trevor, writing isn’t just about communicating well – it’s about communicating beautifully.