Nottingham research will aid hydrogen-powered vehicle design

Research by the University of Nottingham is set to help shape the design of hydrogen-powered refrigerated vehicles as part of a £1million project.

Academics from Nottingham University Business School have worked with key operators in the UK food transport industry to identify barriers to using hydrogen technology in the food cold chain, for green supply and delivery of fresh and frozen products. The research is part of a project to develop dual-use energy storage technology, capable of delivering hydrogen to a fuel cell to power a vehicle and simultaneously generate cooling for refrigeration.

The social scientists are working with colleagues in the university’s Faculty of Engineering on the project, where their research will feed in to the engineers’ designs.

They interviewed fresh and frozen food logistics companies, supermarkets and food manufacturers, gaining perspectives from drivers, logistics, transport and fleet managers, as well as CEOs. They identified a number of technical challenges for the engineers to meet:

  • Mileage and refuelling time – the industry is accustomed to making 600-mile journeys fuelled by diesel before needing to refuel. They would consider an initial mileage of 300 miles for hydrogen-fuelled vehicles to phase in to the market, expecting it to progress to 600 miles in the longer term. They are also able to refuel diesel tanks in under 10 minutes, so their target refuelling time for hydrogen is 10 to 15 minutes or less.
  • Storage capability – lorry trailers are required to be self-sufficient sometimes for up to 72 hours. When a trailer is disconnected from its tractor unit, it is still requiring refrigeration for that time, so the design must include a system for ongoing refrigeration when trailers and tractors are detached, eventually based on excess cooling produced during runs.

Beyond technical challenges, they also identified structural challenges:

  • Refuelling infrastructure – there are approximately only 15 hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK currently (versus around 7,000 petrol stations1) which means that many vehicles used for deliveries across the country would run out of fuel before they reach a station (which may not be anywhere near their planned route).
  • Collaboration – while the logistics sector is highly competitive, respondents explained that the move to sustainable supply chains requires horizontal collaboration within the industry, with firms joining hands to tackle the challenges related to decarbonising the food cold chain.

Industry also highlighted that there is no current national strategy for the move towards hydrogen technology and therefore no support for the industry to advance this area. Respondents said they would expect government funding for research and development, and trials, as well as new policies and regulations put in place, as has been seen with electric vehicles.

Dr Suzanne Couloigner and Dr Robert Cluley are leading the social science part of the project.

Dr Suzanne Couloigner, Research Associate in the Nottingham University Business School, said: “Developing hydrogen technology is key to the decarbonisation of the UK food cold chain, and in this project in particular, hydrogen is used both as a green fuel to power vehicles, as well as a green refrigerant for the load. It’s however important that we consult the end-users on this technological innovation and build their requirements into the design so that the end product is something that meets their needs and is fit for use.

“The next step of this project is for our engineering colleagues to keep improving the dual-use energy storage technology and on the longer term develop a prototype that meet end-users’ needs, and we are really proud to contribute to that.”

The system being developed by the University of Nottingham would allow hydrogen power to become a key part of the UK’s sustainable energy future and to help decarbonise the UK’s food cold chain, which is responsible for 18 per cent of the country’s total energy use.

The technology will target commercial food operations where refrigeration can be responsible for 30-60 per cent of electricity usage (1.2 per cent of the UK’s total CO2 emissions).

In addition to factories and processing plants, the UK food industry also operates a network of 84,000 refrigeration units to transport perishable goods.

It is estimated that up to 24 per cent of the power output of refrigerated trucks used across the network is required to meet refrigeration demand, resulting in significant CO2 emissions.

Successful implementation of the technology will reduce the UK food cold chain’s dependency on imported energy and accelerate the large-scale roll out of hydrogen fuel cells for HGV applications. This could lead to an increase in operating efficiency with a corresponding reduction in commercial operating costs, potentially making the UK more economically competitive.

The project aims to produce a highly efficient, innovative and cost-effective dual-use hydrogen storage technology that, due to its versatility, can be used in a range of industrial cooling processes.


Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the three-year project, which involves expertise from the Faculty of Engineering and Nottingham University Business School, has three key objectives:


1) Formulate and validate a new intermetallic alloy suitable for dual-use hydrogen storage system for different applications in the UK food cold chain. Critical properties of the alloy include the hydrogen gravimetric/volumetric density and the pressure at which hydrogen can be supplied to a fuel cell across relevant cooling temperatures.


2) Design and develop a prototype dual-use intermetallic alloy-based hydrogen store. The effective use of the store’s hydrogen and thermal capacities, system efficiency and cooling power of a dual-use hydrogen system will be tested under operational conditions commensurate with the requirements of commercial operators prevalent in the UK food cold chain.


3) Survey key operators in the UK food transport industry to identify barriers to using hydrogen technology to decarbonise current practices.


Part of the research is supported by University’s Propulsion Futures Beacon, utilising their world-class facilities and equipment including the Beacon Devices Lab and the Hydrogen Systems Test Bed based in the Research Acceleration and Demonstration Building supported by the Energy Research Accelerator initiative.