Testing fuel cells
The ERDF has jointly funded the installation of a platform in Belfort which makes it possible to test the integration of fuel cells in land transport.
Fuel cells (1) are a promising means for producing clean energy using renewable resources. Major automobile manufacturers are taking an interest in this solution and some of them have already presented one or several demonstration vehicles. But this technology still requires extensive development in order for it to be used on an industrial scale and large-scale commercialisation of such vehicles remains a long-term objective for the moment.
In 1999, research activity in northern Franche-Comté concentrated on land transport and energy, two fields which are related to the local industrial area where Peugeot (PSA) plays a predominant role. In February 2000, the General Council of the Area of Belfort proposed the construction of a test platform. Several months later, the French ministry for research and technology opened the National Centre for Technological Research (CNRT) at Belfort-Montbéliard-Nancy, dedicated to fuel cell systems for automotive applications. This initiative was realised in 2002 through the creation of an “Electro-technical, Electronic and Systems Research Laboratory” (L2ES) and a not-for-profit association, “Inéva-CNRT”, which is responsible for its coordination and promotion.
Unique in France
The creation of a fuel cell test platform was begun in January 2001. Construction was completed in October 2002. The 1 186 m² building contains:
- 3 cell testing rooms specially designed to operate with hydrogen and the distribution of centralised fluids (oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, etc.). The equipment can test cells of up to 200 kW. Apart from the pressurisation and forced ventilation tests, these premises also house a vibrating platform and a climatic chamber, to enable tests to be conducted under transport conditions.
- 6 areas are assigned to technicians and scientific, particularly electrical, installations.
- 2 floors of offices provide facilities for research teams (some forty professors, researchers and doctorate students).
Accessible to both industrial and academic customers in this field, the platform is unique in France in terms of its capacities (system tests in conditions that replicate the operation of a land transport vehicle, usage cycle, atmospheric environment and vibrations, etc.).
Up to speed
The project was implemented quickly and efficiently. The building where the tests take place, along with its basic equipment, was accepted at the end of 2002, the specific, heavy equipment for the transport application (vibration table, climatic chamber) were installed at the end of 2003.
Conversely, the platform launch phase, completed at the end of 2005, took longer than had been expected, echoing the speed at which the fuel cell technology itself has evolved, far slower than predicted, even in countries whose research is most advanced, led by the USA and Japan.
A second phase began with the creation of the “FCLab” institute at the facility, in January 2006. This new laboratory is aiming to develop a hydrogen and fuel cell research capacity at a new, specifically local scale.
The fuel cell test platform is a project which has to be conducted far in advance of any industrial applications. We can not yet speak therefore of repercussions in terms of jobs. The project sponsors are seeking to generate interest among businesses which are present in the region, in order for Franche-Comté to play a major part in the emergence, over the next 20 years, of an industrial sector related to fuel cells for transport. To date, the project’s local industrial partners are PSA and to a lesser extent Faurecia and GEEPE (General Electric). An increasing number of national and international industrial players (Renault, Delphi, etc.) are working with the platform.
The platform’s capacity, in terms of the availability of its facilities, especially for national and European projects, are already reaching saturation point. Extension plans are therefore currently being examined.
(1) There are 2 major types of fuel cells: Low-temperature cells (AFC, PAFC, PEMFC and DMFC) and high-temperature cells (SOFC and MCFC). The future of the "low-temperature" type should evolve through DMFC cells, which will enable the direct use of methanol. High-temperature cells, notably SOFC which have been the focus of new research programmes, will probably become the most widespread low-temperature cells. Their overall performance is very high if a heat recovery system is developed.