Bosch bets on fuel cells for future of trucks and cars

The company is entering into a cooperative agreement with Powercell to jointly develop the stacks at the heart of fuel cell technology

Bosch is collaborating with Powercell to ramp up production of hydrogen fuel stacks for the logistics industry [Credit: Robert Bosch GmbH]

Bosch has now an alliance with Powercell Sweden AB, the Swedish manufacturer of fuel-cell stacks. Under the agreement, the two partners will work jointly to make the polymer-electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell ready for production. Bosch will then manufacture this technology under license for the global automotive market. The stack will complement the Bosch portfolio of fuel-cell components, and is to be launched by 2022 at the latest.

Over the long term, the mobile fuel-cell business is potentially worth billions of euros for Bosch. It estimates that as much as 20% of all electric vehicles worldwide will be powered by fuel cells by 2030.

Fuel-cell technology for trucks and cars

Bosch believes the best opportunities for broad adoption of fuel-cell technology are in the commercial-vehicle market. The EU’s fleet requirements for trucks call for a reduction of CO2 emissions by 15% on average by 2025, and 30% by 2030. Bosch’s view is that this target can only be reached by electrifying more and more of the powertrain. They think that the fuel cell can play a decisive role.

They plan that once they have become established in trucks, Bosch fuel-cell powertrains will then increasingly find their way into passenger cars. However, costs are currently too high, with the largest single item the cost of the stack. It accounts for nearly two-thirds of the total cost of a fuel-cell system. “Through commercialization and widespread marketing of this technology, Bosch will achieve economies of scale and push down costs,” says Dr. Stefan Hartung, member of the Bosch board of management and chairman of the Mobility Solutions business sector.

A potential risk?

This bet is relying on a number of factors, one of the most important of which is an increase in the number of places that distribute hydrogen as a fuel for vehicles. There is a small network of more than 60 hydrogen filling stations in Germany, and this number is set to rise. The advantage that fuel cells have over batteries is that a hydrogen tank can be refilled with highly compressed gas in a matter of minutes.

Costs also need to fall when it comes to hydrogen. Currently, this fuel is mainly produced for industrial applications, at a kilogram price that frequently exceeds five euros. As production grows, the price should fall. One kilogram of hydrogen contains as much energy as about three litres of diesel. For 100 kilometres, a modern 40-ton truck requires seven to eight kilograms of hydrogen.

How do fuel cells work?

In the fuel cell (or fuel-cell stack as an assembly of such cells is called) the hydrogen reacts with oxygen. The end result – apart from water as a by-product – is electrical energy. This can be used either to recharge a battery in the vehicle or to directly power the electric motor. By flexibly combining two or more stacks, the power requirements of all kinds of vehicles can be covered, from passenger cars to heavy trucks. With its 60 associates, Powercell is gradually moving from manual production of fuel cell stacks to ramp-up of a semi-automatic production. Powercell has developed stacks that provide an output of up to 125 kilowatts.

Headquartered in Göteborg, Sweden, the company was spun off from the Volvo Group in 2008. It already supplies fuel cells for use as prototypes in trucks and cars.

Bosch sees itself as a systems supplier, and already has a broad portfolio of components for fuel cells in trucks and cars. These include an air compressor with power electronics and a control unit with sensors.

Further alliance for stationary fuel cells

As well as PEM fuel cells, Bosch is already actively involved in solid-oxide fuel cells (SOFC). Since the middle of last year, Bosch has been working with British specialist Ceres Power to further improve SOFC technology for applications such as distributed power supplies to factories and computing centres.

The idea behind the technology is to have small power stations set up throughout cities, as well as in industrial areas. Because these standardized plants are highly flexible, they will be able to cover peak demand better than conventional plants. The aim is for one SOFC module to generate 10 kilowatts of electrical power. Where more electricity is needed, any number of modules with the same output can simply be interconnected.


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