Fuel Cells

Building Up a Head of Steam

Coming soon to a gas station near you? Source: Laif/Thomas Ernsting
Coming soon to a gas station near you?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Hydrogen fuel cell technology is expensive and not yet perfected, but as investment picks up it could one day be a reliable and plentiful alternative to gasoline and electricity powered cars.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Daimler and Linde are investing €10 million each to build 20 new hydrogen fueling stations in Germany by the end of the year.
    • Daimler and Toyota are planning to bring large numbers of fuel cell cars onto the market within the next three years.
    • The fuel cell systems cost about €40,000 per vehicle.
  • Audio

    Audio

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More than 800 kilometers (500 miles) on one tank of hydrogen? Vehicles using fuel-cell technology promise ranges far beyond normal electric cars, including BMW’s fancy new i3 model, while emitting nothing but water.

And while an e-car must spend hours charging, a hydrogen tank is filled in just a few minutes.

But there’s a catch: Currently there are only 16 public hydrogen fueling stations in Germany.

Carmaker Daimler and industrial gas specialist Linde are now determined to change that. The two firms are each investing €10 million ($12.8 million) to build 20 new hydrogen stations by the end of the year.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles, praised in the 1970s and 1980s as an alternative to conventional combustion engines but later forgotten as attention turned to plug-in electric cars, are now experiencing a renaissance.

This is especially the case in the research and development departments of some car manufacturers and raw materials suppliers. And the German federal government is supporting their hydrogen vision. The H2Mobility initiative, which is made up of gas and oil companies and car manufacturers, wants to build 400 hydrogen fueling stations across Germany by 2023.

Because of the high price of the components, the system costs about €40,000 per vehicle.

Daimler and Linde are also working with the oil industry on their hydrogen station initiative, making the search for suitable locations easier.

The planned pumping stations would fill cars with hydrogen compressed to 700 bars of pressure. The car’s fuel cell then converts the hydrogen to water, heat and electricity, which in turn powers an electric motor. Fuel cells can have efficiency levels of up to 60 percent, which is considerably better than a traditional combustion engine. Daimler and Linde plan to harvest the hydrogen from water supplies using renewable energy.

However, the green approach has its price. A driver must pay more for hydrogen fuel than to power a purely electric car, Linde concedes. A spend of €40 filling up a Hyandai fuel-cell car today would secure 400 kilometres of driving.

In the worst-case scenario, German taxes on petroleum fuels will soon apply to hydrogen. Advocates of fuel cells argue that the price of hydrogen should decline in the future, especially if fuel-cell propulsion captures a significant share of the market. But for now, Linde and Daimler will operate the fueling stations without looking to make a profit.

An even bigger cost factor than the hydrogen is the fuel cell itself. Because of the high price of the platinum that is built into the cell and other components, the system costs about €40,000 per vehicle. A study conducted by the consultancy Roland Berger suggested that high costs would mean the fuel cell has little chance of gaining broad appeal over the next 10 years.

The strategists at Toyota see things differently: The Japanese car manufacturer wants to bring fuel-cell vehicles onto the market in 2015. And Daimler plans to produce large numbers of electric cars with hydrogen fuel cells starting in 2017.

Rival BMW wants to wait until 2021, but is still thinking of a significant investment in fuel cells in partnership with Toyota. “It’s definitely a business model for us,” said a BMW source in Munich.

However, BMW has written off a hydrogen-combustion engine it was working on at the beginning of the century. The carmaker promised a technological breakthrough partnering with Linde. But in 2009, it hit the brakes.

The compression of hydrogen from cryogenically cooled liquid gas was technically daunting, and it also used a lot of energy. The prospects of establishing a fueling station network were also extremely small. Even worse, the hydrogen evaporated in the tank if the car had not been driven for a while.

 

Susanne Stephan is a reporter for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: handelsblatt@vhb.de

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