Electric semi-truck startup receives $1.7M grant for fuel cell research

Nikola Motor Company, a Phoenix-based startup that develops hydrogen-electric semi-trucks, was recently awarded a $1.7-million federal grant for fuel cell research. 

The young company was recently labeled as one of five “Projects of the Year” by Area Development Magazine due to its current and projected economic impact in the state. 

Nikola presently employs over 150 employees at its headquarters and anticipates adding more than 50 more by the end of the year. Earlier this year, the unicorn announced that it would break ground on a $1 billion, 1-million square foot manufacturing plant in Coolidge, as well. The plant is anticipated to host over 2,000 manufacturers and technicians. 

The grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, will allow Nikola to advance their product and license the technology to other firms in the industry. 

“We’re bringing a fuel cell vehicle to market in 2022 or 2023. We are using sort of an existing technology to do that. But in order to get to this long-range and high power and high durability, so to get to 20,000 hours — which is more than seven years and a million miles of durability — there’s some development that needs to happen,” Nikola executive vice president Jesse Schneider said. “What that boils down to is, there’s a fuel cell, and each fuel cell system has a few hundred cells. Inside one of these unit cells, we have plates which have the flow channels, and inside of that is what’s called the MEA, or membrane electrode assembly. And that’s really the core of the fuel cell…the MEA development is core to what the fuel system brings.”

Nikola is partnering with university research divisions and local laboratories to ensure the MEA is developed optimally. By advancing this technology, Nikola’s semi-truck infrastructure will have twice the durability as it currently does. This gives the company a competitive advantage, but it also progresses the industry, says Schneider.

“It’s pretty significant for the company, but it’s also significant for the industry. It’s the first ever Department of Energy project specifically for heavy duty fuel cells,” Schneider said. “Basically, we’re making a membrane along with university partners, and essentially, it’s making a more homogeneous mixture of the membrane, and it allows more catalyst, which is less platinum, which is less cost… If it works out well, it’s something we’re willing to license, and not just for Nikola, but for the industry.”

The U.S. Department of Energy awarded Nikola the grant over its automotive competitors “because it hosts the most promise for catalyst,” Schneider notes. Currently, the company is in the preliminary proof of concept phase of research, but it is eager to scale up its fuel cell technology for both its own products, as well as the whole industry.

Photo courtesy of Nikola

Ben Norman

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