The fuel cell expedition: Exploring uncharted territory Development engineer

Hydrogen plus oxygen equals what? That's right: electricity. And electricity can be used to move vehicles. Although the fuel cell has already been tested for many years, it is still regarded as a relatively new technology. Daimler has now launched the world’s first electric vehicle powered by both plug-in hybrid technology and a fuel cell: the Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL. The unusual thing about this model is that it uses both electricity and hydrogen as “fuel.” Holger Richter, the development engineer in charge of the project, played a major role in developing this combination.

Picture: Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL (combined hydrogen consumption: 0,34 kg/100 km, combined CO2 emissions: 0 g/km, combined power consumption: 13,7 kWh/100 km)

Hello, Mr. Richter. Could you please briefly introduce yourself to our readers? Can you tell us something about your career so far?

Richter: The best place to start would be with my schooldays. My path was systematic, but not always the simplest one possible. That’s because I actually attended all of the school types we have. I went to a “Hauptschule” (lower secondary level), a “Realschule” (secondary level), and a “Gymnasium” (advanced secondary level), and finally I received my engineering diploma at a technical university. After completing a weekend study program in parallel to my job, I also received a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. I began my career as a development engineer, and worked on the fuel cell from the very start.

The title of your dissertation for the engineering diploma was “A Recycling Concept for the Fuel Cell.” How did you develop a fascination with this technology?
I was always interested in alternative drive systems that operate with zero emissions. Fuel cell technology in particular is still immature. In other words, there’s no library full of knowledge about it. Instead, we are starting out in uncharted territory with no cleared roads ahead of us. What we need in this field is lots of creativity. This inspires a very strong pioneering feeling in me. I’m keen to develop things that have never existed before.

Why did you choose to work for Daimler?
Daimler is a pioneer in the field of fuel cell development. It’s already been working on this technology for more than twenty years. The first fuel cell vehicle from Mercedes-Benz, the NECAR 1, was unveiled back in 1994. This innovation already thrilled me back then. That was another reason I decided to work for Daimler.

You are responsible for the “Control of Product Projects eDrive Large Cars” unit. What does this mean in detail?
I’m responsible for the powertrain of the fuel cell of the Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL. In other words, I coordinate all the development activities related to the powertrain, and I’m responsible for making sure the whole project runs smoothly. This is a completely interface-related job.

That sounds like a lot of project management. How did you learn to do that?
There’s a lot of on-the-job training. In addition, at Daimler I had the opportunity to do advanced training to qualify as a project manager. It was a six-month seminar that included two classroom days per month. I could manage that very well alongside my job, and it was a very good opportunity for me to get professional training. It’s wonderful that Daimler provides such opportunities.

For how long did you work on the GLC F-CELL?
All told, I worked on this project for about five or six years, beginning with the initial concept, continuing with the development of the pilot powertrain, and ultimately ending with the final technology. I’m very proud of the fact that our product is now on the market. At the same time, I’m looking forward to working on a new project. Fortunately, Daimler offers a wealth of opportunities, so my job continues to be exciting.

In the GLC F-CELL a fuel cell was combined with a battery drive system. How come?
We are the only automaker to offer this combination so far. The advantage for the customer is that we offer an additional plug-in battery as an electric alternative if you’re only driving in urban traffic, for example. You can use the hydrogen system for longer trips, and in that case you have a range of about 480 kilometers.

Are there any other advantages?
Yes, the dynamics. The fuel cell offers comparatively low acceleration, but things look very different in battery operation, which enables you to accelerate within a few milliseconds. That makes driving more sporty and more fun for the customer. By contrast, the big advantage of the fuel cell is that it can be quickly refuelled in three to four minutes. You don’t have the same long charging times as you do with a battery. That enables you to drive for long distances in the shortest possible time.

What’s the composition of your development team?
Our team is very mixed. It’s a rather small team consisting of five people, including an MBA holder, an industrial engineer, and three technical engineers. At 44, I’m the oldest team member. In other words, it’s a very young team. For me it’s a lot of fun to work in such a diverse group.

Thank you very much for this interview.

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