Fighting Climate Change Through Innovation: Mobility with Fuel Cells
Dr Helerson Kemmer, Project Director, Corporate Research, Robert Bosch GmbH
In recent years, combatting the rise of pollutant emissions (especially in urban centres) and of global CO2 levels has taken a prominent place on the political agenda. Considerable international efforts have been directed at this, including successive amendments to emissions limits and the signing of international climate agreements. These efforts have led and will continue to lead to the proliferation of renewable energy and to an increasing electrification of the transport sector.
The transformation and expansion of the energy sector as a result of these megatrends is increasingly shifting the energy mix toward renewables such as solar and wind power. Since production and demand cannot be synchronized, there is a need for efficient storage media. In addition, industrialized nations have always tried to maintain a balance between energy affordability and energy self-sufficiency, with a clear tendency toward the former.
“Many experts predict an H2 economy in the medium-term. The “Hydrogen Council” recently launched in Davos is a first sign that this prediction is correct”
If this trend continues (as is to be expected), highly industrialized countries such as Germany and Japan will import a huge amount of renewable energy from less cost-intensive production sites. This will require a storage medium that can be efficiently transported over long distances, a requirement that can be satisfied if hydrogen is used. That is why many experts predict an H2 economy in the medium-term. The “Hydrogen Council” recently launched in Davos is a first sign that this prediction is correct.
The automobile industry faces the challenge of offering electrified mobility products and solutions while still keeping them commercially attractive. In other words, they have to satisfy their customers’ demands for increasing quality and convenience while keeping their prices affordable. Fuel cell vehicles based on hydrogen offer a perfect solution, since their only by-product is water, which leaves the system in form of vapor. These vehicles also offer mobility on a par with current standards, with range and fueling times comparable to combustion engines. Furthermore, the noise and vibration level of fuel cell systems is lower than that of combustion engines. And as a final advantage, these systems are perfectly embedded in the H2 economy.
Natural development for the automotive industry
For the automotive industry, fuel cell mobility is a natural development. It has many parallels with the conventional automotive technology that has been employed on a large scale for many decades. The two powertrain solutions are similar in terms of the required system capability to dimension the entire system, complex air supply and control, the thermal management of critical components and of the vehicle as a whole, the use of fuel at high pressures, and the software control of complex interactions between actuators and sensors. Many combustion-engine components can be used in fuel cell systems, as can engineering and manufacturing expertise and sites.
In recent years, this established know-how has been enhanced by new elements for electro- mobility, some of which are already in mass production. Mention can be made here of the electrical powertrain and electrical devices developed for hybrid vehicles and battery-powered vehicles (high-power motors and inverters, steering, brake boosters, air conditioning compressors, pumps, etc.), as well as of batteries and gas storage (e.g. for CNG-powered vehicles). These products can be seen as paving the way for the introduction of fuel cell vehicles, with their electrical powertrains and gas storage tanks.
A few products are still needed to complete the chain, such as hydrogen injectors, sensors feasible for H2 and the fuel-cell stack. Bosch is working primarily on products that complement the Bosch portfolio, such as specific injectors and sensors. Stack electrochemistry technology is presently deployed in niche applications such as fork lifts or heat and current generators. The learning curve for this technology has sped up considerably in recent years, with a huge reduction in the amount of platinum needed for catalysis as well as a significant increase in power density. The activities of diverse research institutes have now found their way into the research and development departments of automakers and automotive suppliers. However, as such activities do not typically form part of the brief of automotive engineers, the industry will still have to retrain some of its staff, as well as recruit some new graduates with the necessary qualifications. Universities have been successfully preparing their undergraduate and postgraduate engineers in this technology in recent years.
Great opportunity for innovative companies
Fuel cell technology represents a great opportunity for both highly industrialized countries and innovative companies such as Bosch. By combining established know-how with new technologies and products, highly qualified jobs can be maintained and created. This means taking the control of the entire value chain, from research and development to the production and launch of attractive products. Costs can be kept low by applying the automobile industry’s proven method of incentivizing innovation through fair competition for ideas and technology as well as through adjustable production needs.
On the other hand, new players are forcing their way into the value chain, from components up to entire vehicles. Established companies will need to continuously develop and rethink their strategic positioning in order to keep pace with, or indeed to shape, this development. Bosch is ready to support automakers in their efforts.
Here, it will take the same approach that was very successful in combustion-engine development over the last few decades: Bosch will create value for automakers through innovative components, subsystems, and system platforms based on profound systems understanding. This is not only necessary to remain a successful company, as it is an important contribution toward achieving the challenging goals which the global society of the 21st century has set itself.
About the author
Dr Helerson Kemmer is Director of the mobile fuel cells project in the corporate research sector at Robert Bosch GmbH.