Bosch Outlines Fuel Cell’s Vital Powertrain Role

Bosch has nailed its colors to the hydrogen fuel cell mast at least in terms of powertrains for heavy-duty vehicles.

The German automotive supply giant in a statement asks: “But how economical is it to operate heavy-duty trucks with 40-ton payloads over long distances using only battery-electric power?” It points out the serious limitations to BEV adoption across the vehicle fleet, including excess battery weight, long charging times and limited range of today’s technology, rule the powertrains out for use with long-distance heavy-duty truck. It’s, perhaps, appropriate timing by Bosch considering today’s virtual launch of the 16-ton urban delivery truck, the Volta Zero.

That’s why it is now fully promoting hydrogen fuel cell as the obvious zero emission solution for trucking fleets and predict this technology is on the cusp of being able to offer 40-ton trucks a usable working range of 620 miles between refuels. It’s ecosystem concept envisages a loop of sustainable sourced energy to create the fuel and deliver it at the points of service for the fleets.

Bosch lists the seven pivotal reasons it now supports hydrogen as crucial to tomorrow’s transport needs:

Climate neutrality
In a fuel cell, hydrogen reacts with oxygen from the ambient air and this is turned into electricity for use in the powertrain whose only emissions are heat and water. Generating this electricity from renewable hydrogen sources makes the fuel-cell powertrain completely climate-neutral. Fuel cells have a better carbon footprint than BEV powertrains, especially for large, heavy vehicles, if the CO2 emissions for production, operation and disposal are added together.

Potential applications
With energy density, 2.2-lbs of hydrogen contains as much energy as 0.72 gallons (0.87 gallons US) of diesel. To travel 62 miles, a passenger car needs only just 2.2-lbs; a 40-ton truck needs a good 15.4-lbs. As with diesel or gasoline, it takes just a few minutes to fill an empty hydrogen tank and continue the journey. In addition to mobile applications, Bosch is developing fuel-cell stacks for stationary applications with solid-oxide fuel-cell (SOFC) technology. One intended use for them is as small, distributed power stations in cities, data centers, and charge points for electric vehicles.

This is around a quarter higher for fuel-cell vehicles than for vehicles with combustion engines. Employing recuperative braking further increases efficiency. While BEVs do this effectively too, because energy production and energy demand do not always coincide in time and location, electricity from wind and solar plants often remains unused because grids are overloaded and governments even pay producers to shut down operation. Hydrogen solves this by being able to be easily stored, maintaining constant energy production, and good for use immediately or after many years without the degradation and leakage suffered by battery energy storage.

With constant production, the cost of green hydrogen will come down considerably when production capacities are expanded and the price of electricity generated from renewables declines. The Hydrogen Council, an association of over 90 international companies, expects costs for many hydrogen applications to fall by half in the next ten years – making them competitive with other technologies.

Roughly 180 hydrogen filling stations in Europe are already sufficient for some important transport routes. Companies in many countries are cooperating to push ahead with the expansion, often supported by state subsidies. In Germany, too, politicians have recognized the important role of hydrogen in decarbonizing the economy and have anchored it in the National Hydrogen Strategy. Japan, China, and South Korea also have comprehensive support programs.

The use of gaseous hydrogen in vehicles is safe and no more hazardous than other automotive fuels or batteries and hydrogen tanks do not pose an increased risk of explosion. Hydrogen is about 14 times lighter than air and extremely volatile so, if it escapes from a vehicle tank, it will rise faster than it can react with the ambient oxygen. In a fire test conducted on a fuel-cell car by US researchers in 2003, there was a flash fire but it quickly went out again. In similar tests I have witnessed in at Hyundai’s facilities in Korea, gasoline sticks to surfaces causing a great deal of damage while hydrogen leaves the vehicle unharmed.

Hydrogen production is a proven and technologically straightforward process. This means it can be ramped up quickly to meet higher demand. In addition, fuel cells have now reached the necessary technological maturity for their commercialization and widespread use. According to the Hydrogen Council, the hydrogen economy can become competitive in the next ten years, provided there is sufficient investment and political will.

Dr Uwe Gackstatter, president of the Bosch Powertrain Solutions division, said: “The advantages of the fuel cell really come into play in those areas where battery-electric powertrains don’t shine. This means there’s no competition between fuel cells and batteries; instead, they complement each other perfectly. The time for entry into the hydrogen economy is now.”

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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