A big step for hydrogen fuel cells in cars
The launch of hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars is being held back by several barriers. An EU and industry-funded project removed one such hurdle by developing a prototype fuel cell that meets all industrial specifications.
© monicaodo #111077475, source: stock.adobe.com 2019
Fuel cells for electric cars are an attractive technology for automotive manufacturers as they offer a low-carbon emissions solution without the limited range of battery power. However, relatively high costs, few suppliers and the lack of infrastructure for providing the hydrogen that fuel cells need, are among factors hampering take-up and commercialisation.
The EU and industry-funded AUTO-STACK CORE project brought together industrial partners and research organisations to develop fuel-cell hardware with superior power density and performance while meeting commercial target costs.
AUTO-STACK CORE built on an earlier project that defined the power and space requirements for fuel cells and set out the concept and specifications to ensure the technology would deliver the necessary properties for industrial take-up. As such, it is an important step on the road to fuel cell-powered cars.
At the end of the project, we successfully delivered a working hydrogen fuel cell that fulfils all the key requirements, says project leader Ludwig Jörissen of the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg in Germany. It has the low weight and small volume needed to fit into a car and the power requirements to drive that car and drive it a long distance. It also has the potential to meet automotive target costs when produced on an industrial scale.
Jump-starting fuel-cell take-up
The philosophy behind AUTO-STACK CORE is that of a common platform a fuel cell meeting all requirements and eventually available from a range of automotive equipment suppliers. Car manufacturers compete on design, engines and boot space which they generally keep in-house. However, they do not compete on the starter battery or the catalyser. These latter elements are provided by the supply chain of equipment manufacturers which may deliver to several car makers.
Our goal is to reduce the barriers to fuel-cell take-up by offering an economic, off-the-shelf solution that all car manufacturers can access in the pre-competitive stage this is vital to get implementation moving now, says Jörissen. Maybe car manufacturers will compete on aspects of fuel-cell technology in the future but today that would just delay the take-up of a desirable green technology and extend the life of internal combustion engines.
A fuel cell has a plate-like structure with two wafer-thin electrodes sandwiching a membrane. At one electrode, electrons are stripped from hydrogen and sent off to power the engine. The hydrogen ions move through the membrane to the second electrode where they pick up their returning electrons and combine with oxygen to produce water the only exhaust gas.
Because each plate only produces a small current and voltage, a fuel cell needs a stack of plates like a pack of cards to generate the current needed. The main scientific challenges for AUTO-STACK CORE researchers lay in these stacks.
Our first success was to find ways to achieve a high stack power density, sufficient to meet both power and volume requirements, says Jörissen. We then found solutions to get the membranes to work effectively in confined spaces. Another challenge was to find the right electrode catalysts that would work with the frequent start/stop events in a normal car and which would operate down to -25 °C.
Closer to commercialisation
Several European car manufacturers have announced plans for fuel-cell-powered cars or prototypes within the next five years. According to the roadmap timeline, Jörissen expects final prototypes to be ready around 2020.
'In AUTO-STACK CORE, we have taken a large step towards commercialisation. Now we need to get down to the nitty-gritty issues such as full endurance, ruggedness, design and manufacturing quality and yields, he says. Automotive fuel-cell development in Europe was lacking both state-of-the-art stack products and competitive stack suppliers for automotive application. We are changing this situation.
Based on these successes, in July 2017, a German Autostack industry project was launched, with a ~EUR 60-million budget, comprising a consortium of leading industrial companies to investigate high-volume production of automotive fuel cell stacks over a three-year period.
This national initiative is the next step toward mass fuel-cell manufacturing. Over three years, this joint initiative by the German automotive and supply industries aims to provide the technical, economic and technological basis for the commercial introduction of fuel-cell vehicles in Germany and Europe by 2020.
AUTO-STACK CORE was funded by the EU and the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking.