Technology: Hydrogen drive of the future: A never-ending story

The fuel cell has an eventful history.

Technology: Hydrogen drive of the future: A never-ending story

The fuel cell has an eventful history. In the 1980s, the automotive industry began exploring the use of hydrogen as an energy source for electric cars. But even after four decades, the technology is still not fully developed. Some brands have now given up on the clean technology of the future, others have put billion-dollar projects on hold and few are continuing to invest. At the moment, consumers have no choice but to wait for the first fuel cell car that does not impose any restrictions on everyday life and does not cost 70,000 euros. Hydrogen is a much more present topic in politics than among customers. A Hydrogen Council was founded in January 2017 at the World Economic Forum in Davos with the aim of contributing to limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius by 2050. The founding members included the automobile manufacturers BMW, Mercedes, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota.

In addition to the thin network of gas stations, fuel cell fuel tanks continue to be a big issue. As for the liquid hydrogen containers on board the car, these are now cylindrical and require a lot of space, which affects the type of vehicles that can use a fuel cell system. However, a quantum leap in technology is expected in the near future as tanks made of composite materials are developed that take different shapes and can be installed in vehicles of various shapes and sizes. Expectations are particularly high for tank shapes that have the same shape and size as the flat batteries used in electric cars. One of the most important European projects is called Bryson and is led by BMW and the technical colleges/universities in Dresden and Munich and financed by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

In order to achieve a range of over 500 kilometers, fuel cell vehicles must be able to store five to ten kilograms of hydrogen in containers that are compressed in a crash-safe manner at 700 bar. Carbon fiber is the most expensive component used in the construction of the containers, accounting for more than 50 percent of the total cost. The costs for fuel cell storage systems have fallen significantly in recent years and are currently around 15 euros / kWh. This is expected to be halved by 2030. Current analyzes assume that the European market for fuel cells will develop into one of the largest markets in the world by 2030. According to a study that McKinsey consultants just presented to the Hydrogen Council, activity in this area is increasing rapidly. There are currently more than 1,400 development projects underway around the world, involving $570 billion in investments and 45 million tons of clean hydrogen per year by 2030. Europe has the most projects (540), followed by North America (248); but there is also exponential growth in investment in India, China, Japan and the Middle East.

The hydrogen industry continues to face headwinds, which explains some of the delays. The production costs for green hydrogen have increased by 30 to 65 percent in the last few years alone. Even in the long term, it seems doubtful that the majority of the hydrogen used will actually be produced in a CO2-neutral manner. According to estimates by the International Renewable Energy Agency, two-thirds of the hydrogen and its derivatives that end-users will consume in 2050 will be produced sustainably; a third comes from mixed, and therefore blue, hydrogen. While hydrogen refueling infrastructure has accelerated in China and South Korea, development has been slower in Europe and North America. There are just over 1,100 hydrogen filling stations worldwide. Of these, around 800 are in Asia, 245 in Europe (most of them - 94 - in Germany) and 351 in China. It is no surprise that sales of hydrogen-powered vehicles correlate geographically with the presence of infrastructure. Europe is trying to make up for lost time: investing 45 billion euros in the European Commission's green pact by 2027 and the EU transport infrastructure fund, which has allocated 284 million euros - about a third of its budget - to set up hydrogen filling stations. On the other hand, the recent confirmation of the Renewable Energy Directive establishes that 42 percent of the hydrogen used by industry in Europe in 2030 will come from sustainable sources and envisages the construction of hydrogen refueling stations at intervals of no more than 200 kilometers along the TEN-T ( trans-European transport network) in this region.

The first studies date back to 1984; But the first fuel cell prototype called NECAR I, a small van whose cargo space is entirely occupied by the system, was not introduced until 1994. This was followed by the A-Class Fuel Cell in 2003 and the B-Class in 2010. In the second half of the last decade, the Swabian brand believed it had found the ideal symbiosis when it developed the prototype of the world's first plug-in Fuel cell hybrid vehicle presented. The fuel cell GLC was a fully electric plug-in thanks to the combination of fuel cell and battery technology. The system was 30 percent more compact and fit into a conventional engine compartment. It generated 40 percent more electricity, used 90 percent less platinum and weighed a quarter less. It had a range of almost 500 kilometers and could be refueled with hydrogen in about three minutes. Mercedes has now said goodbye to fuel cells, at least when it comes to passenger cars, and is relying solely on electric cars.

After starting with prototypes of the BMW 5 Series GT, using fuel cell technology from cooperation partner Toyota, production of fuel cell systems began in the main plant in Munich in summer 2022 and installation in a test fleet of the BMW X5. In the iX5 Hydrogen, which, like the Mercedes, combines a battery-electric system with a fuel cell-electric system, the heart of the fuel cell system is in the engine compartment; it is the size of a three-cylinder internal combustion engine and weighs 180 kilograms. The two tubular carbon fiber tanks are housed under the back seat and in the center tunnel in a T" configuration and have a capacity of six kilograms, allowing a range of 500 to 600 kilometers. The peak power is 275 kW / 374 hp - but the continuous power is lower , 125 kW/170 HP - thanks to the 150 kW high-voltage battery with a capacity of 2.3 kWh, which is located under the trunk floor and serves as a temporary energy reserve for sudden higher power requirements. “From our point of view, the fuel cell is an important pillar in the drive portfolio," explains BMW CEO Oliver Zipse, "we want to give the customer the choice. Anyone who doesn't do this risks losing market share and no one can afford that."

Alone or in partnership with BMW, Toyota has been at the forefront of this hydrogen crusade for decades. The program was launched in 1992, although the first fuel cell small-volume sedan, the Mirai, was not introduced until 2015. In 2020, the second generation of the system was introduced with the Mirai II, also used in the Toyota Crown, and recently the prototype of the Hilux Fcell pick-up was unveiled. One of the interesting aspects of the Mirai II is explained by project manager Ryotaro Shimizu: “This car is not zero-emissions, but rather a vehicle with negative emissions, since the air that remains behind the car is cleaner than that that goes through it, thanks to a very powerful air filter front grille and helps clean the environment." Toyota's technology has been expanded to other applications, such as: B. in trucks and buses in projects in the Netherlands and Portugal, in ships in Norway and in trains in Europe.

The South Koreans have also been developing fuel cells for 25 years. The first prototype was the Santa Fe FCEV at the beginning of this century. Production of the ix35 fuel cell SUV began in small series in 2013, and five years later it was replaced by the Nexo. Today it is the best-selling fuel cell car in history, with around 37,000 units, followed by the Mirai, which sold 25,000 units. In 2020, the XCIENT Fuel Cell became the first mass-produced fuel cell truck. The development of the third generation of the Hyundai fuel cell for the successor vehicle to the Nexo, but also for use in buses, trucks and ships, is currently being completed. Hyundai plans to electrify its entire range of commercial vehicles by 2028, with either battery or hydrogen power.

Honda has also been experimenting with hydrogen to power cars for almost three decades. The compact FCX from 2002 was followed by the well-known FCX ​​Clarity in 2008 and the Clarity in 2016. In 2024, the Japanese brand will start selling a fuel cell version of the Honda CR-V, at least in the North American and Japanese markets. At the Tokyo Mobility Show at the end of last year, the Giga Fuel Cell Truck was presented as a joint project between Honda and Isuzu, which is scheduled to come onto the market in 2027. At the same time, Honda wants to bring a new hydrogen car onto the market, for which an annual production volume of around 2,000 units is forecast. This year, a new fuel cell vehicle developed jointly with General Motors is to be presented and will come onto the market in the USA and Japan. This will use a new fuel cell module that Honda presented at the European Hydrogen Week in Brussels at the end of last year.