Freight transport in the United States is currently fueled chiefly by fossil fuel-derived diesel, jet fuel, and marine fuel oil. There are many challenges to replacing these fuels with clean hydrogen and other clean fuels, including cost, delivery infrastructure, and technology-readiness level of potential end uses. By mid-century, however, these challenges could be met, and clean hydrogen could be available in sufficient quantities to decarbonize freight transport and other sectors of the economy, as well.

Key Findings:

  • Hydrogen is poised to play a complementary role alongside electrification and other clean fuels in decarbonizing freight transportation in the United States.
  • Hydrogen is a flexible energy carrier, and low-carbon hydrogen can offer climate benefits when used directly as a fuel or as a feedstock for clean fuels.
  • The use of hydrogen as a fuel or energy carrier in freight transport can greatly reduce life cycle emissions relative to conventional and alternative fuels, though the production route and end use conditions greatly affect the magnitude of these climate benefits.
  • Distribution and storage present technological challenges and concerns regarding leakage and energy consumption as well as economic challenges that must be overcome for hydrogen to be cost-competitive and provide maximum climate benefits.
  • Hydrogen and hydrogen-based clean fuels have the potential to offer mature, low-cost, low-carbon alternatives to conventional freight transport fuels by 2050.
  • Long-haul road freight, maritime freight, air freight, and rail freight will require clean, energy-dense fuels sourced from low- and zero-carbon feedstocks in order to achieve near-term and long-term decarbonization goals.
  • Hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels are among the leading decarbonization solutions for long-haul road freight, maritime freight, air freight, and long-distance rail freight by 2050.

Executive Summary

Clean Hydrogen Production

Clean hydrogen production technologies are seeing a substantial increase in funding and development. In the United States, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates US$9.5 billion to clean hydrogen production and infrastructure, and the Inflation Reduction Act provides a production tax credit for low-carbon hydrogen production. Globally, climate goals are driving national-scale hydrogen initiatives and funding, with India, the European Union, China, and Japan increasing funding for hydrogen production and demonstration projects.

If hydrogen is to fulfill its promise as a low-carbon fuel fit for use across many sectors of the economy, its production must rely on low- and zero-carbon feedstocks and processes. Nearly all hydrogen produced today comes from natural gas and is used as a feedstock in refining and chemical production. Hydrogen production from renewable energy sources and low-carbon pathways are established technologies but are still costly.

Hydrogen distribution and storage must overcome technological and permitting challenges in order to meet projected hydrogen demand. While some dedicated hydrogen pipelines exist today, new pipelines, pipeline retrofits, leakage, blending standards, and separation requirements and technologies are just some of the issues that must be addressed in order for hydrogen to be distributed at scale. Transporting hydrogen by truck, ship, or rail could provide early modes of hydrogen transport until production ramps up. Producing hydrogen close to demand centers and therefore limiting transport of hydrogen will be crucial to reducing costs and infrastructure needs.

The decision to scale up hydrogen production must be made in the context of low-carbon energy supply and land use priorities in order to offer climate and societal benefits. Large-scale clean hydrogen production via electrolysis could be limited in part by zero-carbon electricity supply. However, using renewable electricity that would otherwise be curtailed for hydrogen production could offer a low-cost pathway, and this hydrogen can then be used for long-duration energy storage and clean, firm electricity generation. Hydrogen production from biomass must ensure that land use is not diverted from food production or other essential or higher uses.

Hydrogen’s Role in Decarbonizing Freight Transportation

Hydrogen is one of many fuels that could play a role in decarbonizing the freight transportation sector. Hydrogen can play a complementary role alongside electrification and other potentially low-carbon fuels—such as methanol, propane, and ammonia—in the freight transportation sector. Since these fuels can be made from sustainable biomass and hydrogen or made synthetically from hydrogen and carbon dioxide from direct air capture, hydrogen could play a role as a low-carbon fuel directly or as a low-carbon fuel feedstock.

Cost, onboard storage requirements, and refueling infrastructure remain significant challenges for hydrogen use in freight transport applications. Freight transport—and the transportation sector in general—requires low-cost, widely available energy sources that offer easy and safe onboard storage. Hydrogen is an energy-dense fuel by weight, but its low boiling point and small molecular size present storage challenges regarding boil-off and energy requirements for liquefaction or compression. Hydrogen based fuels and hydrogen carriers offer distribution and onboard storage solutions, though costs remain high.

While short-distance trucking is poised for battery electrification, long-haul, heavy-duty trucking could require an energy-dense, molecule-based fuel such as hydrogen. Fast refueling and zero emissions at the point of use make hydrogen an attractive solution for decarbonizing the heavy-duty longhaul road freight segment. However, clean hydrogen availability, distribution and storage infrastructure, and cost remain obstacles to widespread adoption. Hydrogen could be converted to usable energy in trucks via fuel cells or combustion, though conversion by fuel cells is more efficient and cleaner.

Ship vessel fleet operators are changing to cleaner fuels via retrofits and new builds, and hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels are seen as a potential solution in the segment by midcentury. Liquid natural gas-powered ships offer near-term, low-cost greenhouse gas emissions reductions and substantial non-greenhouse gas emissions reductions, which are a major concern in ports. Increasingly strict emissions requirements in the segment will require switching to even lower-carbon fuels or energy sources, such as hydrogen, hydrogen-based fuels such as ammonia or other hydrogen carriers, or batteries. Increased efficiency in ship design and the use of wind-aided propulsion are expected to provide further emissions reductions in the segment.

Sustainable aviation fuels derived from biomass or waste are seen as a near-term decarbonization option for the air freight segment over the next couple of decades, while hydrogen and other hydrogen-based fuels are poised to play an increasing role by midcentury. Though aircraft carry only a small fraction of cargo by weight, the segment is 20 times more carbon intensive than the freight average, and it is depended on to carry higher-value, lighter cargo that calls for shorter shipping times. Developing novel aircraft designs and fuel storage technologies will be important in decarbonizing the segment in order to meet weight and efficiency constraints imposed by air freight transport.

Rail freight offers unique near-term opportunities for hydrogen as a backup power supply for freight locomotives as well as a primary fuel in rail yard switching locomotives. The segment offers energy-efficient long-distance ground freight transport, and it is crucial to movement of bulk materials and intermodal containers. Rail freight is perhaps the most flexible freight segment, given its ability to employ multiple locomotives on a single train and to store fuel in designated cars without significantly affecting efficiency.


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