Ahead Of December 1 Debut, Nikola Motor Company Dumps Natural Gas, Adopts Hydrogen For Nikola One Electric Semi in U.S.

When Tesla launched the limited-production Tesla Roadster in 2008, it became something of an agent of change in the automotive world, challenging the electric vehicle preconceptions of both car buyers and auto industry insiders alike. Less than a decade later, Tesla is not only continuing to challenge ideas about what an electric car could (or should) be but doing so in such a way that its competitors — many of whom dismissed the company in its infancy — are rushing to play catchup.

The Nikola One will be powered by electricity from its on-board battery pack and 800-volt H2 fuel cell.

The Nikola One will be powered by electricity from its on-board battery pack and 800-volt H2 fuel cell.

However you feel about the company or its management style, Tesla’s dominance of the plug-in world is undeniable. Indeed, Tesla’s influence has been so great that many new companies have been founded from Detroit Electric through to Faraday Future. All of them without exception want a piece of Tesla’s tasty market share pie.

It’s not just automakers either: Tesla’s runaway electric car success is something that Utah-based Nikola Motor Company is hoping to replicate in the trucking world. As we reported earlier this month, its first vehicle — named the Nikola One — promises zero emission capabilities, a long range in between charges and a 6×6 electric drivetrain that is man enough to power an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer combination. Due to debut at the start of December, Nikola Motor began taking deposits from would-be buyers earlier this year, and already has an impressive number of companies and owner-operators signed up to take part.

Inside, the Nikola One is contemporary and spacious.

Inside, the Nikola One is contemporary and spacious.

But while the world debut of the Nikola One is less than 100 days away, the company announced this morning that it is making a major change to the Nikola One’s drivetrain that will see it switch from using Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) as its range-extending fuel of choice to a hydrogen fuel cell stack.

As recently as last month, Nikola was promising that the Nikola One would feature a fuel agnostic gas turbine optimised to run on compressed natural gas, which would generate up to 400 kilowatts of electricity that could be used to provide range-extending capabilities one the truck’s massive 320 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack had been depleted. As part of its deal to the first 25,000 early adopters, the company said it would install a nationwide network of CNG stations along major U.S. highways where truckers would be able to fill up for free for their first million miles.

At the time, we questioned Nikola’s claim of zero emissions, since the burning of CNG — however cleanly — does produce some tailpipe emissions. And although the vehicle as it stood then came with its own on-board charger to enable its massive 320 kilowatt-hour battery pack to be recharged from a public charging station, the whole reason of having the turbine on board in the first place was to extend the vehicle’s range to 1,000 miles or more.

Nikola Motors says it will built 56 hydrogen filling stations across the country.

Nikola Motors says it will built 56 hydrogen filling stations across the country.

It’s not entirely clear why Nikola Motor has decided to replace CNG with Hydrogen, but we’d guess it has something to do with the general trend away from CNG and toward hydrogen fuel in the alternative fuel market which, in turn, probably means there are more grants and low-interest loans available for a vehicle designed to operate on hydrogen rather than CNG.

Of course, there are also environmental benefits to using hydrogen over CNG. While most commercial hydrogen today is produced through the steam reforming of CNG — a process that is very energy intensive and which is not zero emission — Nikola says it plans to build multiple 100-megawatt solar farms throughout the U.S. where it will use solar power to electrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen, using the hydrogen to then power its customers trucks.

As for refuelling? Filling up the massive on-board 100 kilogram cryogenic hydrogen fuel tanks won’t be particularly fast: Nikola says that its own refueling stations should replenish an empty Nikola one tank in between 20 and 30 minutes, noting that the wait is just long enough for the driver to stretch their legs, grab something to eat and visit the restroom before hitting the road again. Planning to built 56 filling stations across the U.S., Nikola Motor hopes that drivers will never be out of range of a nearby filling station.

Interestingly, while the filling stations will be designed for Nikola One customers to use, the company says it will also allow other people to fill up their hydrogen vehicles too at a cost of $4,00 per kilogram of hydrogen.

The Nikola One boasts 2,000 pound feet of torque and is twice as fast to 60 mph as diesel-powered truck.

The Nikola One boasts 2,000 pound feet of torque and is twice as fast to 60 mph as diesel-powered truck.

It’s worth noting too that although some outlets have dismissed the switch from CNG to Hydrogen, inaccurately reporting that the Nikola One will no-longer be an electric vehicle, we should note that having checked with Nikola Motors ourselves we can confirm that the truck will still come with the capability to charge its 320 kWh battery pack from an external charging station. Additionally, the company says that it will keep CNG as a fuel choice for some key markets where hydrogen fuel cell technology is not as well-supported.

But perhaps the most interesting point of Nikola Motor’s business model is the way in which it plans to offer customers free fuel for the first 1 million miles of their time with their truck, complete with scheduled maintenance and unlimited miles. The cost at the moment has yet to be finalized but Nikola Motor says customers should pay no more than between $5,000 and $7,000 per month. That’s far more than a standard Semi would cost, but does include fuel and maintenance. Considering the Nikola One gets a claimed 15-20 miles per gallon equivalent (compared with 5 miles per gallon equivalent for diesel-powered trucks) it’s easy to see the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell plug-in hybrid truck paying off for large fleets that need to carry long distances.

With no official publication of final specifications and the vehicle not due to be officially unveiled until the start of December, there are still a lot of unknowns about both Nikola Motors and the Nikola One. But if Nikola Motor makes good on its promise to bring a range-extended hydrogen fuel cell plug-in truck to market — and its vehicles meet the tough standards truckers demand of their vehicles when it comes to road handling, reliability and capability — the Nikola One could dramatically change the carbon footprint of heavy haulage forever.

That is of course, if Tesla and its promised all-electric Semi don’t come to market first…


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  • Martin Lacey

    And that my friends is the death of Nikola M C before they even started!

    Hydrogen will kill the cost benefit and any interest with very little infrastructure in place to support it.

    It’s a good Job Tesla are committed to an electric semi.

    • nordlyst

      I agree. Nikola looked promising, but now it’s beginning to look like a hoax. And a hoax that will require at least a two-digit number of billions of dollars of upfront investments.

      They say they’ll make hydrogren from a 100 MW solar installation (via electrolysis). But solar is rated according to peak output – if you put the panel on the equator and it’s noon and there aren’t any clouds. So the average output won’t be more than 20 MW. Since elctrolysis is less than 50% efficient we are down to 10 MW as the rate of hydrogen in energy terms. And then you lose 30% compressing it. So they can supply their storage sites at a rate of less than 7 MW with these scheme. Since there is 24 hours in the day and one kg of H2 contains 42 kWh of energy, we find as an upper bound on their H2 production capacity 7000 kW * 24 h / 42 kWh/kg = 4000 kg per day.

      This should be fine provided they don’t sell as many as 100 vehicles…! 😀

  • JohnCBriggs

    I think the most interesting part of this is the hydrogen filling stations.
    If they do build 56 filling stations and will let HFCV fill up at $4/kg. That is a big deal.
    The Mirai take 5 kg of hydrogen so that would be $20/fillup. At 315 miles or 6¢/mile, which is not too bad and close to the 5¢/mile that I pay for my Prius and LEAF.
    But the question is, can Nikola make any money selling solar generated hydrogen at $4/kg.

    • It’s also possible that there are some government grants/incentives that can be tapped into if building such a network is opened up to the general public. Which to be honest, I what I suspect its motivation is.

    • nordlyst

      It’s just bullshit, and you should know better. Just do the math. Their proposed solar installation couldn’t supply even 100 vehicles! 100 MW rated means less than 20 MW actual average delivered power. Electrolysis isn’t even 50% efficient, so you’re under 10 MW. Compression takes you below 7 MW. Even ignoring all other inefficiencies, we can establish an upper bound on the H2 production capacity of 4000 kg per day. That isn’t enough for even 100 semis.

      Not that I would expect the coward who banned me from GreenCarReports forums for my opinions, abusing his editorial power and depriving not just me of my right to speak but everyone else’s right to decide for themselves what they will hear, to make any effort to look critically and actually check if the proposals from industry are at all coherent.

      You, and the rest of the know-nothings who are willingly promoting the hydrogen scam, are an enemy of the people.

      • JohnCBriggs

        Thanks for the breakdown on the production.
        As for the GCR ban, I don’t control that.
        However, given your response here, I can see why that happened.

      • Joseph Dubeau

        “Electrolysis isn’t even 50% ” talk about bullshit! Get your facts straight. The only scam is trolls like you.
        You guys are just like Trump supporters. Stop trying to stop people reading and commenting about this technology. We don’t care about your negative opinions.

  • JohnCBriggs

    “electric drivetrain that is man enough”
    Seriously, gender stereotypes from you 🙂

  • KIMS

    4,00 could be taken as 400 in the states and elsewhere.. but I’m assuming it is $4.00 😉

  • CDspeed

    Has anyone told them that you can’t get hydrogen at truck stops? What are they going to do operate in Southern California only?

    • nordlyst

      They propose to build their own network. And the hydrogen is “free” (prepaid with the vehicle, just like Tesla does with Model S/X and superchargers).

      Hydrogen makes zero sense as long as it’s from methane or electrolysis. The first makes it as CO2 intensive as ICEVs, but much more expensive, and the second is horribly inefficient compared to using green electricity to power BEVs rather than make hydrogen and power FCEVs.

      OTOH, if you are trying to get very rich in a huge IPO, hydrogen is an excellent means of dramatically inflating the need for upfront investment – and delaying any expectation of profitable operation…

  • Joe Viocoe

    “the company says that it will keep CNG as a fuel choice for some key markets where hydrogen fuel cell technology is not as well-supported.”

    Some markets? They should say All Markets.

    The FCV prototype will be made solely for the showroom floor, and to scam more investors. Anything else built, will be natural gas.

  • WayneC

    I guarantee we will never see a production model of the Nikola. This is one giant scam, preying on the optimism of electric vehicle supporters to push a carefully crafted version of vapor ware. Any early investors should run now, and not put good money after bad.