Emission-free mobility: Does the future belong to the fuel cell?

Electromobility is an important component of the energy transition worldwide, and electric vehicles are the key to climate-friendly mobility. According to the national hydrogen strategy of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, hydrogen plays a central role in the further development and completion of the energy transition. But is hydrogen technology also the right solution for the automotive industry?

We wanted to find out more and asked Gerd-Dieter Krieger, Managing Director of the Fuel Cells Working Group in the VDMA and a known expert in the field of hydrogen technology, and Michael Büchler, a specialist in the industrialization of hydrogen technology at KUKA, about this exciting topic.

Fuel cell technology: What is behind this form of drive?
Michael Büchler: The technology itself has been around for 180 years, and in principle it has not changed significantly. Some of you may still remember electrolysis from chemistry class. Electrolysis is a chemical process in which electricity forces a redox reaction (Editor’s note: Chemical reaction in which one reactant transfers electrons to another reactant). In the fuel cell, however, reverse electrolysis takes place. Added fuel, such as hydrogen, reacts with an oxidant (oxygen from air). This produces heat, water and electric current. This current in turn drives the motor.

Gerd-Dieter Krieger: Correct! We are talking here about a form of drive that combines the advantages of battery-electric drives (zero emissions, low noise) with the advantages of internal combustion engine drives (high energy density of the fuel, fast refueling).

Krieger: When talking about electromobility, this also refers to the fuel cell, since here too, as with battery-electric vehicles, the drive is provided by electric motors. In addition, vehicles with fuel cells always include a battery, the dimensioning of which depends on the particular application. Battery-electric and fuel cell-based drives are therefore not opposites, but complementary drive concepts.

Insight into the current state of electromobility in the automotive industry: What is the status of fuel cell technology here?
Büchler: Climate targets, subsidies and, above all, the increasing popularity among consumers of low-emission vehicles are motivating many manufacturers to push ahead with this technology. Battery-powered vehicles have already established themselves as a means of achieving climate targets and represent an initial milestone in the energy transition. Fuel cell technology will increase in importance in the long term, as it will be another important milestone for OEM´s to meet fleet limits.

Michael Büchler, a specialist in the industrialization of hydrogen technology at KUKA

Krieger: I agree with you there. The challenge of achieving climate gas neutrality within one generation is enormous. While great progress has been made in the area of power generation using the sun, wind and water, however, development in the mobility sector is lagging well behind. Experts agree that all drive technologies are needed depending on the various fields of application (passenger cars, commercial vehicles, railroads, ships, aircraft, work machines, etc.). Battery electric vehicles have established themselves on the market, partly accelerated by the Corona crisis. However, the progress achieved in fuel cell technology in recent years is not yet visible on the market, but will follow by the middle of the decade.

Status quo: How far is fuel cell technology already established in automotive production, are there already successes?
Büchler: The first series production vehicles have been available for purchase since 2016. In recent decades, the technology has been developed and pushed forward very strongly. Now the focus is on the industrialization of the fuel cell to reduce production costs and increase quality.

Krieger: The focus of investments was on the further technical development of the fuel cell. Here, important development goals were achieved in terms of performance and service life. The current challenges lie in the area of cost reduction, which requires above all the industrialization of production processes. For this purpose, the first partially automated production facilities for fuel cell stacks have been set up in Germany in recent years. Well-known OEM´s are about to invest in production facilities. Time is pressing, as Asian and North American manufacturers have also recognized the signs of the times and are already investing heavily. Although the number of registered vehicles is still low, it will increase rapidly over the next few years, especially from 2025 onwards.

Gerd-Dieter Krieger, Managing Director of the Fuel Cells Working Group in the VDMA

Büchler: Fuel cell technology is predestined for entry into passenger and freight transport, as distances, refueling and maintenance procedures can be precisely calculated and offered as a service. This means that the infrastructure for refueling can also be mapped in the company’s own logistics.

Krieger: As part of the Electromobility Forum last year, the VDMA commissioned FEV Consulting to conduct an extensive study of the prospects for fuel cell technology. The result: from 2030, fuel cells will account for a significant share of passenger cars, commercial vehicles and mobile machinery. Sales of fuel cell components in passenger cars alone could reach 11 billion euros in Europe by 2040.

What factors could help the fuel cell in the race for the drive form of the future?
Krieger: Range – range – range! The decisive factors here: emission-free, greenhouse gas-neutral and quiet. The growing awareness that achieving the Paris climate protection resolutions requires decisive action will lead to a strengthening of the measures that are still inadequate today. The 9 billion euro expansion of the hydrogen theme in Germany alone over the next few years will also drive the acceleration of fuel cell development.

Büchler: The fuel is available in almost unlimited quantities and causes minimal emissions. Another advantage is the reduced use of wear parts compared to conventional drives. Fuel cell technology as a drive alternative and energy storage system is an important and indispensable piece in the mosaic of the transformation of the energy industry. The experiences from the pandemic have once again reinforced the importance of independence – whether in terms of raw materials or energy. […]

Future prospects: How could fuel cell technology realize zero-emission mobility and what is KUKA’s vision for this innovative technology?
Büchler: In order to reduce unit costs and increase quality, manufacturers of fuel cell stacks must move away from manual manufacturing and towards an intelligent automation solution. And this is precisely where KUKA wants to help and support customers with its expertise. For this purpose, we offer a wide range of products and services: from the core component – the robot – through manufacturing cells, engineering, test systems and turnkey production plants to intelligent software solutions.

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