Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles – how close is commercialization?

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As hydrogen continues to gain traction in the vehicle sector, ATTI looks at recent investments, strategies and partnership announcements 

Numerous hydrogen fuel cell tie-ups were announced in 2021, aimed at commercializing the technology once and for all. Ekpo Fuel Cell Technologies managing director, Julien Etienne, believes that the dynamics of the market are there to allow for quick growth. ElringKlinger and Plastic Omnium formed the joint-venture company earlier this year. It brings together ElringKlinger’s expertise in fuel cell tech with Plastic Omnium’s investment capabilities in the hydrogen vehicle market.

Cellcentric managing director, Christian Mohrdieck, says there are two hurdles that need to be overcome on the journey to commercialization, namely vehicle cost and volume. He notes that it’s a chicken and egg scenario: a volume increase will only be possible as the cost to produce the vehicles comes down, and growth in volumes will help to reduce costs.

“There are two areas where we see high costs. One is the technology itself, but this [issue]has mainly been solved. Then there is the supplier market, but we are seeing strong competition among suppliers, which is good for cost price reduction,” he says.

Julien Etienne, MD, Ekpo Fuel Cell Technologies

Julien Etienne, MD, Ekpo Fuel Cell Technologies

Small successes
Hydrogen fuel cells have their advantages over other propulsion technologies, experts note. Hydrogen can be rapidly refueled. In low temperatures, fuel cells have a minimal loss of range, making the technology ideal for large, long-range vehicles or those operated in cold environments.

Etienne notes the rapid maturation in fuel cells and hydrogen-powered vehicles in the last two to three years from an OEM and supplier standpoint. This is partly thanks to the successful execution of real-world applications, which are producing imperative data to hone the technology, he says.

“Low-volume production of fuel cell vehicles by the likes of Toyota, Hyundai, Honda and Daimler has provided field experience to work on component maturity.”

Meanwhile, Cellcentric has had 50 hydrogen-powered buses running for a number of years in cities across Europe, and Mohrdieck envisages heavy-duty trucks being among the first commercial applications.

Christian Mohrdieck, MD, Cellcentric

Christian Mohrdieck, MD, Cellcentric

Bundle of joy
Packaging remains one of the biggest development challenges. Cellcentric’s solutions are designed to fit into the same space as a combustion engine in the engine compartment to ensure they are compatible with any given vehicle application.

As Etienne at Ekpo Fuel Cell Technologies highlights, although a hydrogen fuel cell simply slots into the powertrain, fuel cell analysis differs from ICE testing in some respects. “We do not have an accelerated test like we have for a conventional internal combustion engine, for instance. There is a relative lack of maturity in the technology, or experience, that prevents us from doing this [accelerated testing].”

When it comes to virtual evaluation, it is simply a matter of time before enough good-quality data is gathered to enable the recreation of the fuel stack and powertrain in the computer.

Hydrogen fuel cell tie-ups 2021

  • General Motors signed an agreement to provide its fuel cell technology to truck maker Navistar. Navistar is in turn supplying hydrogen production firm OneH2 to provide trucking specialist J.B. Hunt Transport Services with a zero-emissions long-haul mobility system. Navistar plans to make its first production model fuel cell EV commercially available in 2024.
  • Groupe Renault and fuel cell system specialist Plug Power launched a 50/50 joint venture to manufacture hydrogen fuel cell systems for light commercial vehicles. The new company, based in France, will also produce technology for fuel cell passenger car applications.
  • Strategic partnerships between Stellantis, automotive supplier Faurecia and fuel cell specialist Symbio, which is Faurecia’s JV with Michelin, will focus on the development of the fuel cell stack and the hydrogen storage system for Stellantis’s planned line of light commercial vehicles.
  • AVL Powertrain and Ford began working on the design and development of a driveable demonstrator fuel cell EV. AVL is leading research into the integration of the fuel cell and hydrogen systems into the vehicle. The goal of the project is to accelerate UK-based FCEV expertise and know-how to support the automotive industry’s drive toward zero-emission propulsion.
  • Canadian companies Ballard Power Systems and Linamar Corporation announced that they are jointly developing fuel cell powertrains and components for Class 1 and 2 vehicles, including buses and commercial trucks, weighing up to five tons. The powertrains will initially be marketed in North America and Europe.
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