New boost for fuel cells

Das Antriebssystem des Mercedes-Benz GLC-F-CELL.

Mercedes-Benz GLC-F-CELL

Daimler

The idea of using hydrogen and fuel cells to power cars already existed 50 years ago. Now, an alliance of car manufacturers and energy companies wants to help the technology achieve a breakthrough. Yet there are still some obstacles to overcome.

One of the stars of the upcoming International Motor Show (IAA) in September will be Mercedes’ GLC F-Cell, a fuel-cell version of the compact SUV. It comes with plug-in technology based on lithium-ion batteries.

In addition to a combined range of around 500 kilometers, Daimler guarantees zero emissions. This is because only water vapor comes out of the exhaust pipe. This is generated by hydrogen reacting with the oxygen that is injected into the fuel cell. This creates electricity, which powers the fuel-cell vehicles and is usually stored in batteries. The vehicle can therefore be refueled in just a few minutes.

On the eve of the International Motor Show in 2011, Dieter Zetsche stated: “Hydrogen is the better oil today”. At the show, the CEO of Daimler AG presented a gullwing with a fuel-cell drive, a hydrogen storage unit in the undercarriage, and an on-board lithium-ion battery which can be charged externally. This was the plug-in research vehicle F125!, which anticipated the technology of the GLC series version that followed. Now Daimler is putting the technology on the road.

Yet there are many other manufacturers doing intensive research on fuel-cell cars as well. At the same time, these companies are also developing more and more all-electric models because the market for electromobility will continue to grow in the coming years. This demonstrates that German industry is doing everything to advance climate-friendly technologies. The “Hydrogen Council”, which was established at the Davos World Economic Forum in January, proves that companies also believe in a breakthrough for the technology on an international level. The automobile manufacturers in this council include Daimler, BMW, Hyundai, Toyota and Honda. Also present is the Royal Dutch Shell oil company as well as wind power provider Alstom. The long-term goal of the Hydrogen Council is to promote energy transition with the help of hydrogen. “A joint effort by power suppliers, industry, government, gas station operators and customers can make it happen,” says Anne Kleczka, Head of Technology Project Hydrogen Fuel Cell at BMW.

At the kick-off meeting in Davos, the members announced that they would continue to increase investment in the development and commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cells above the current sum of 1.4 billion euros per year. In the future, significantly more money will flow into this promising technology. Jochen Hermann, Vice President Electrics/Electronics & E-Drive Development at Daimler, says: “Fuel-cell technology has enormous potential for the energy and mobility sectors. The benefits for us are clearly evident: long ranges and short refueling times, as well as a wide range of uses, from cars to buses.”

The idea behind fuel cells was introduced by General Motors as far back as 1966. However, the high cost of the platinum used in the fuel cell was enough to make the vehicle too expensive for mass production. Furthermore, there was no refueling infrastructure for this technology.
The situation is not much different today. According to a study by the consulting firm Ludwig-Bölkow-Systemtechnik (LBST) and the TÜV Süd technical inspection association, there were only 22 hydrogen fueling stations accessible to the public in Germany at the end of 2016. Too few for hydrogen vehicles to be used in everyday life. Nevertheless, there is a continuous corridor of 106 hydrogen pumps in Europe: “A trip from Norway to Bolzano is now possible,” claims the study.

By the end of 2018, the number of hydrogen-fuel stations in Germany should increase to 100, and 400 stations are planned for 2023. For BMW expert Anne Kleczka, this would be a big step: “It would mean a guaranteed supply for the majority of German drivers, with at least two stations both in the immediate vicinity and along the main roads/highways.” There is also no need to build additional stations: “The only thing that has to be done is to modify the existing network of gasoline and diesel stations,” says Anne Kleczka.

One considerable challenge that remains is the energy-intensive production of hydrogen, since H2 must be produced industrially in addition to what is available from natural sources. This creates CO2 because hydrogen is largely extracted from natural gas. Despite this, “CO2 emissions are roughly 25% below the emissions of an internal combustion engine in the overall cycle,” says Christian Mohrdieck, Director Fuel Cell at Daimler. The goal is to completely implement zero-emissions mobility using renewable energy and sustainable procedures.

The vehicles are still relatively expensive, but Christian Mohrdieck believes that fuel-cell technology has the potential to lower costs and greatly increase efficiency. Correspondingly, one goal is to reduce the amount of platinum in the fuel cells. Nonetheless, the first BMW fuel-cell car will be a high-end vehicle because “hydrogen technologies can maximize their competitive advantages over battery-powered electric cars, namely energy density and long-distance suitability” in this segment, as Kleczka puts it.

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