At the moment, the battery-powered car is still the main focus of attention among German car manufacturers as the means of transport for the future. For a few weeks, however, the word “hydrogen” or “fuel cell car” has become increasingly popular in relevant news. More and more studies are being conducted to give one or the other type of propulsion system a thumbs up. It has quickly become apparent that suddenly a large number of people are jumping into the boxing ring for the fuel cell and stressing its advantages over the battery power. But if you take a closer look at these studies, it is also obvious that they were commissioned by representatives of one camp or the other – even if they are carried out by independent institutions.
But what are the facts? Is the battery better or is the fuel cell? Is the battery eco-friendlier or is the fuel cell? In which direction will the future of mobility go, towards the battery or towards the fuel cell? Or both? Innovation Origins takes a deeper look at these questions in a brief series.
Japan and China put their money on hydrogen
The car manufacturers invest enormous sums in the (further) development of electric cars, but primarily in those with batteries. There are also voices that claim that these investments are unnecessary, since our current cars, whether gasoline or diesel, could basically be converted to electric propulsion systems with fuel cells within no time. The only differences to the internal combustion engine, would be that the car would be as quiet as any electric car, plus you would refuel in kilos, not in liters. If you find a hydrogen filling station at all. But more about that later. Compared with a battery-powered car that has the same range and engine power, the fuel variant would also weigh around 500 kilograms less.
While the Europeans still rely for the most part on batteries for electric cars, Japan and China are increasingly taking a different approach. Toyota is promoting its 113 kW (154 PS) fuel cell car Mirai as the “car of the future”. In China, hydrogen is currently being considered mainly for trucks, buses, and delivery vans. Yet, the country of the Red Dragon wants to promote the hydrogen engine also in the passenger car sector, and have a total of one million hydrogen cars on the roads by 2030.
In their hydrogen offensive, however, the Chinese have a decisive advantage over countries like Germany. As in Japan and Korea, the fuel cell drive is promoted by the government. In Germany, there are also manufacturers of fuel cells, but those who produce them also for passenger cars are uncommon.
Daimler opts for a combination
Daimler wants to go its own way with its Sprinter series. In addition to the e-Sprinter, the company presented the Sprinter F-Cell concept at last year’s IAA Commercial Vehicles in Hanover. The motor home has a 147 kW fuel cell and the hydrogen tanks installed in the undercarriage offer a range of up to 500 kilometers, depending on the configuration. In addition, there is a small, externally rechargeable battery that can supply energy for up to 30 kilometers. According to Daimler, the H2 Sprinter is a design for an alternative propulsion system suitable for long distances, as it could be used, for example, in motor homes, but also in courier vans and minibuses.
“We will offer an electric propulsion system in our complete commercial range – starting this year with the eVito and the eSprinter later in 2019,” explained Volker Mornhinweg, Head of Mercedes-Benz Vans. “With these, This means that we already cover many, but not all, applications with a locally emission-free drivetrain. We are therefore supplementing our eDrive@VANs strategy with the fuel cell drive, which offers great medium-term opportunities in long-distance operation in particular – regardless of whether a fuel cell vehicle is used as a motor home or for other commercial applications.”
The potential of this technology is undisputed, he stressed. ” That applies above all to comparatively large vans with a need for long-range and short refueling times. Our analyses demonstrate that the fuel cell can represent a sensible expansion of the drivetrain range in a number of different applications in both the commercial and private arenas. The Concept Sprinter F-CELL provides insight today into the possibilities for the future”.
Audi and BMW follow suit
Audi has entered into a cooperation agreement with the South Korean manufacturer Hyundai to ‘advance the development of fuel cell technology’. This cooperation will also include the reciprocal exchange of patents and access to non-competitive components. “The fuel cell is the most systematic form of electric driving and thus a potent asset in our technology portfolio for the emission-free premium mobility of the future,” says Peter Mertens, board member for technical development at AUDI AG. “On our FCEV roadmap, we are joining forces with solid partners such as Hyundai. For the breakthrough of this sustainable technology, cooperation is the smart way towards achieving leading innovations with attractive cost structures.” To kick this off, both companies have planned a small series of luxury SUVs with a hydrogen propulsion system.
BMW has been working with Toyota in the hybrid sector since 2011 and both companies plan to launch an X5 with a fuel cell in 2025. It will be the Munich carmakers second attempt to succeed at hydrogen cars. Ten years ago, they ended the experiment with the conversion of the 760i V12 engines to hydrogen. “We are working on a small series of X5 models that will be fueled with hydrogen,” BMW Development Director Klaus Fröhlich said at an event a few weeks ago. “By 2025, we are bringing this technology – together with Toyota – to the point where it can be introduced to the mass market in a cost-efficient way. We don’t talk so much about it, but we are working on it.”
The issue of weight certainly plays a role as well in the attempt to make fuel cells more popular, even though a lot of batteries don’t actually weigh several tons. According to our colleagues from electrive.net, just the batteries of a BYD intercity bus, with a range of 300 to 400 km, weigh almost 3 tons. But the posh battery-powered electric cars are no lightweights either. The Mercedes EQC, the first purely electric, battery-powered SUV from Daimler which will be available from October 2019, weighs a proud 2.5 tons. Its sibling, with a combustion engine, weighs 650 kilograms less. The Jaguar I-Pace also exceeds the two-ton mark with a net weight of 2,208 kilograms. And the BMW iX3 weighs 2,490 kilograms, just as much as the Audi e.tron Quattro, whose battery weighs 700 kilograms.
With the GLC F-CELL, which weighs 370 kilograms less than the EQC for the same range, Mercedes demonstrates how much weight can be saved by using fuel cells. Like the Sprinter F-Cell motor home, the SUV also combines fuel cell and battery technology into a plug-in hybrid: in addition to hydrogen, the purely electric version of the popular SUV will also be ‘fueled’ electrically. The 4.4 kg of hydrogen on board produces enough energy for a range of up to 478 kilometers in hybrid mode. The large lithium-ion battery delivers up to 51 kilometers.
So it seems as if the question of battery OR hydrogen might not even arise. In the next part of our series, we will take a closer look at batteries and fuel cells and their ranges along with their levels of eco-friendliness.