A winning plan for green hydrogen trucking 

Doctoral student Rebecca Lentz is part of a six-member team that earned 2nd place in the inaugural U-M Hydrogen Grand Challenge.
Photo of the members of the Fresh-Air Freight team
L-R: Team members Marisa de Souza, Matthew Gerber, Fernando Villavicencio, Rachel Silcox, Rebecca Lentz. Not pictured: Jenna Stolzman.

People who care about organic food may be more likely to care about the environment, and therefore be willing to pay a few extra cents to make sure it gets transported in an environmentally friendly way.1

Banking on the truth of that statement, U-M students created a business plan for a potential transport company that could make a profit despite using the relatively high cost of hydrogen fuel. They pitched their plan at the inaugural U-M Hydrogen Grand Challenge competition, and earned second place for their proposed company, Fresh-Air Freight.

Logo for Fresh-Air Freight

“There are a lot of applications for green hydrogen,” said team member Rebecca Lentz, a doctoral student in Electrical and Computer Engineering. “But we’re in this chicken or egg situation. Who is going to create the demand in order for someone to create the supply?”

Lenz was part of a six-member team that entered the contest. The others were graduate students Rachel Silcox (team leader), Jenna Stolzman, Marisa de Souza (who is also working on her MBA), Fernando Villavicencio from Mechanical Engineering, and Matthew Gerber from the School for Environment and Sustainability.

Long distance trucking seems to be one of the best applications for hydrogen transport.

Rebecca Lentz

This year’s Grand Challenge was called Michigan Hydrogen Horizon, and those wanting to compete were asked to “create a business case for a Michigan-centered, regional deployment of hydrogen.”

The team focused on long-distance hydrogen trucking.

“Long distance trucking seems to be one of the best applications for hydrogen transport,” explained Lentz, “because it becomes more efficient with long range, and filling the tank is a lot faster than going electric.”

Electric trucks are also expensive, and even need special tires that need to be replaced every 8,000 miles.

Hydrogen pumps are not widespread, but Flint Mass Transit Authority does offer hydrogen fuel. The company is committed to clean energy, and replaced its last diesel truck for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in 2023.

So the team had a Michigan source for hydrogen fuel, but now needed a way to make money. That meant finding a market willing to pay the higher cost of using hydrogen-fueled trucks.

“The organic foods market has a customer base that is very interested in sustainability,” said Lentz. “It’s a market that’s continually increasing, and there are organic farms in Michigan.”

Individuals purchasing organic food have already resigned themselves to paying higher prices. The team believes they’d be willing to pay a bit more per item if they knew they were contributing to cleaner air. How much more? The team estimates that an apple that costs $1.19 with traditional transportation would rise to $1.37.

As an organic food buyer, would you be willing to pay that extra cost if you knew the $.18 contributed to cleaner air? For me, and hopefully for many others, the answer would be a resounding, “Yes!” 

Lentz’s own research is focused on generating green hydrogen through semiconductor photocatalysis. She is advised by Prof. Rohini Bala Chandran in Mechanical Engineering (ME), and co-advised by ME professor Pramod Sangi Reddy, who has a courtesy appointment in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Additional information:

U-M Student Teams Compete In Hydrogen Grand Challenge