Hydrogen Leading the Way in Decarbonizing Heavy Machinery


Jane Marsh

People can achieve improved sustainability in many ways, but the decarbonization of heavy equipment would undoubtedly represent significant progress. Hydrogen is one of the primary things making that goal possible.


JCB Shows the Potential of Hydrogen


Heavy equipment brand JCB was one of the first in the construction sector to show why hydrogen was a viable option. In July 2020, the company announced it had developed the first hydrogen fuel cell-powered excavator and had been testing it for more than a year.


That project aligned with the company’s other sustainable efforts, including making several electric-powered machines. The benefits of electric machinery versus diesel options go beyond sustainability, too. For example, an electric forklift has superior maneuverability because the battery’s weight acts as a counterbalance. 


More recently, JCB unveiled a machine with a combustion engine powered by hydrogen gas. Tim Burnhope — JCB’s chief innovation and growth officer — explained his company operates on the belief that it is critical to match the right technologies to the applications in question. He continued by saying that although electric power is widely available, it’s not always the best solution for every application or even a feasible option. That stance illustrates why JCB is examining various ways to use hydrogen.


JCB’s hydrogen combustion engine looks a lot like a diesel-powered one. The company also said the power, torque and response time are similar to non-hydrogen engines.


Heavy Equipment Brands Are Open to Hydrogen


Anyone who has been around heavy equipment can quickly recall the associated emissions, detectable by sight and smell. However, hydrogen only expels heat and water, making it substantially different. The people at most heavy equipment brands realize hydrogen is not the only path to sustainability, but it is a prominent one.


Other efforts to work with it have taken various forms. One vehicle modification company converted two Liebherr excavators from diesel power to hydrogen-electric. That is an example of how someone who owns or manages heavy equipment does not necessarily need to buy new machines to take advantage of hydrogen.


In another example, Associated British Ports became the first port operator in the United Kingdom to test a hydrogen-powered tractor in a container terminal. This effort is in the early stages but includes using a mobile filling station at the port to help people refuel quickly when using hydrogen-powered equipment.


Elsewhere, French heavy equipment maker Manitou added a hydrogen station at its test center. People at the company intend to develop several hydrogen-powered pieces of equipment. The first is a construction-spec telehandler with a 14-meter reach, which will work with a hydrogen fuel cell.


These examples show a growing momentum for using hydrogen with heavy equipment. The outcomes of these efforts will undoubtedly help other decision-makers learn more about how they may want to use hydrogen soon.


Hope on the Horizon


Using hydrogen in heavy equipment requires a willingness to do things differently. However, people with the authority to move forward with such investigations will feel more confident about pursuing hydrogen when they notice more well-known brands doing the same. Then, the world could move closer to a future where heavy equipment usage happens without polluting emissions.

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