Working together on fuel cells

Making the future of fuel cell technology a reality — that’s the goal of the Autostack Industry project, in which Daimler is working with other automakers, suppliers, and partners from the scientific community.

The future can be heard humming quietly on a laboratory test rig — it’s a fuel cell stack very similar to the ones that will soon be used in all types of vehicles. Fuel cells convert the energy stored in hydrogen gas into electricity that can then be used to operate electric motors and other power consumers — with water vapor as the only emission.

But the stack that this story is about isn’t built into a car. It’s in a test rig located in a lab operated by the Daimler subsidiary NuCellSys in Nabern, Germany. The fuel cell, which is surrounded by numerous wires and cables, is being tested with a program that simulates the normal operation of a passenger car. Uwe Pasera is pleased with what he sees in the lab. “We were able to create a system that comes very close to the environment in which fuel cells might be installed in vehicles in the future,” says Pasera, who has a degree in physical engineering. “Actually, the only things missing are the electric motor and the wheels.”

Gabor Toth, manager for the Autostack Industry Project at NuCellSys

The energy converter in the lab operated by the fuel cell specialists in Nabern was not developed by Daimler alone, says Gabor Toth; instead, it was created within the framework of the Autostack Industry project — a German research project in which numerous partners are collaborating in a program managed by the National Organization Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology. Toth, who is the project manager for ASI at NuCellSys, is working on the project for Daimler along with Pasera and around six other experts in the field.

The partners plan to make technology for large-scale series production of fuel cells available in around two years — after extensive testing and with a high degree of maturity.

The aim of the project is to jointly facilitate the market launch of a new technology. But there’s more to it than that, because once the technology is launched, the project partners will benefit from being able to use it later on in their own products. They plan to make technology for large-scale series production of fuel cells available in around two years — after extensive testing and with a high degree of maturity. For this reason, the project will not lead to the production of finished fuel cells that can be purchased on the market. Instead, the project will result in the establishment of technical conditions that will serve as the basis for the development of separate solutions by its participants. This approach is what makes ASI so flexible. For example, ASI will make it possible to link up individual modules to create fuel cells with different outputs and designs.

Another benefit offered by ASI is that its project engineers are able to make use of the experience gained through two previous European fuel cell projects. “That makes for lower development risks as compared to projects that have to start from scratch,” explains Toth. Along with the automakers BMW, Daimler (with NuCellSys), Ford, and Volkswagen, the project also brings together the DANA, Freudenberg Performance Materials, Greenerity, Powercell Sweden, and Umicore supplier companies, as well as the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW), which is serving as the project’s scientific partner and coordinator. Suppliers are contributing their expertise in the areas of membranes, bipolar plates, fuel cell catalysts, gas diffusers, and fuel cell stack construction.

In the right place at the right time

Professor Werner Tillmetz, a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW) and also the Head of its Electrochemical Energy Technologies Division

The project came along at a good time, according to Professor Werner Tillmetz, a member of the Board of Directors of ZSW and also the Head of its Electrochemical Energy Technologies Division. That’s because the market for fuel cell technology is developing very dynamically at the moment. According to Tillmetz, the drive technology is just as much in demand for passenger cars with a long range as it is for buses, all types of commercial vehicles, trains, and many other applications in mobility and energy technology. Tillmetz and project coordinator André Martin have to date launched a series of three Autostack projects in which they have cooperated with their colleagues from the very beginning.

As Tillmetz says, cooperation in ASI is good for Germany as an industrial location. “ASI helps maintain the value chain for fuel cell technology in Europe,” he says. He points out that Germany, for example, already occupies a very solid international position in the area of fuel cell research and development. The goal now is to introduce the technology on a broad industrial scale.

The German federal government is supporting this effort, as ASI has received nearly €20 million in funding from Germany’s Ministry of Transport via the National Innovation Program for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology (NIP). This funding corresponds to around one third of the total project budget, including the services provided by all the partners, according to Martin, a fuel cell expert who spent many years at Ballard and Daimler. Martin also works to promote the promising drive system, which electrochemically transforms hydrogen into electricity and water vapor, at the European level in Brussels.

We sometimes conduct tests in icy winter temperatures in the middle of August.

Uwe Pasera, a physical engineering expert in the Autostack Industry project

Uwe Pasera, physical engineering expert in the Autostack Industry project

Through its subsidiary NuCellSys, Daimler plays a particularly important role when it comes to testing the results of the various development stages. The tests designed by the project engineers are very realistic. For example, fuel cell stacks must be able to operate reliably under diverse climate conditions. “This means that the test rig is experiencing icy winter temperatures in the middle of August,” says Pasera. He explains that it makes sense that NuCellSys chose to focus on fuel cell testing, as “the company has accumulated a huge amount of expertise in fuel cell technology over a period of many years.” Indeed, Daimler presented its Mercedes-Benz NECAR 1 research vehicle way back in 1994. This was followed by additional research vehicles, concept cars, near-production test vehicles, and ultimately the GLC F-CELL. The latter was presented as a pre-production model at the IAA in Frankfurt in 2017, and preparations for series production of the vehicle are now under way at Daimler.

It will take some time until the results achieved with ASI can be incorporated into production cars on a broad scale. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2021, says Martin, and after that the path will be open for a rapid market launch: “After all, the project is standardizing numerous technology components in order to create new knowledge and develop economic advantages for production.” Martin also points out that ASI is preventing a situation in which a single manufacturer develops a good technical solution but cannot benefit economically from this solution for many years due to high production costs. He’s therefore certain that not only the vehicle manufacturers but also all the other partners will benefit from the project over the long term: “Each partner contributes important knowledge, and each partner also gains new knowledge for its own development activities in the future.”

A win-win situation for everyone

The market is already prepared for the results of the project, as the demand for modular and robust fuel cell technology continues to grow. Developments in the automotive industry are also being influenced by other industrial sectors, such as the rail technology sector. In the summer of 2018, for example, the first-ever fuel cell train for regional service was presented in Wiesbaden, Germany. The plan is to use locomotives powered by fuel cells to replace diesel trains on non-electrified routes.

In view of this development, it’s good that facilities for ensuring a reliable supply of hydrogen gas are being continuously expanded in Germany, says Tillmetz. For example, more and more electrolyzers that are powered by wind-generated electricity and produce hydrogen from water are now in operation in Germany. Plans also call for the hydrogen filling station network in Germany to be expanded to around 400 stations by 2022. There are currently around 50 hydrogen filling stations in Germany. The expansion of the network is important, because vehicles equipped with fuel cell drives offer major benefits in the form of short refueling times, long travel ranges, and water vapor as their only emissions.

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