The promise of driving without limits or emissions is tied to a simple chemical element: hydrogen.
The reason for this lies in its very unique chemical properties. Hydrogen, like conventional fuel, can be burned or used in a fuel cell to produce electricity. In both cases pure water occurs as a by-product. And the process is even reversible: water and energy can become hydrogen again – in the laboratory as well as in large-scale production. With the help of the renewable energy generated, hydrogen could therefore become the basis for emission-free mobility. On the way to achieving this, hydrogen can store totally different types of energy and supply it for use in transport. In this manner hydrogen technology is building a bridge to the future of mobility.
Cars, buses and fuelling stations
Already today there are cars on the road worldwide with a hydrogen drive system -many in demonstration projects in Europe, Japan or in the USA. Models with a combustion engine resemble conventional petrol cars with respect to their driving characteristics. So-called bivalent combustion engines can even alternate between hydrogen and petrol drives at full speed and without jerking. In this manner they can cover great distances, even when no hydrogen refuelling station is nearby. Regarding energy efficiency however, fuel cell vehicles have the edge. They are fundamentally electric cars, only instead of a battery, the fuel cell supplies the necessary electricity. Fuel cell vehicles are ideal for city transport: quiet, quick to accelerate and totally emission-free.
The majority of large car manufacturers now have prototypes or close-to-production models with hydrogen drives in their portfolio. Even buses with fuel cells or hydrogen combustion engines are already in operation in many cities in Germany. They are a part of comprehensive research and development projects of the kind implemented by the Clean Energy Partnership in Germany. The aim is everyday testing of hydrogen technology, primarily at the many interfaces between vehicle technology, hydrogen production and refuelling station infrastructure.
How does a hydrogen fuel pump work? What regulatory steps are required for their construction? How can operational safety be guaranteed and certified? How can hydrogen production from renewable energies be ensured? Car manufacturers, energy suppliers, infrastructure and local transport companies are working closely together with the public sector in order to answer these questions and to create a common vision: emission-free mobility with hydrogen.
Boats, bicycles and light vehicles
Hydrogen is a universal source of energy. Combined with fuel cells it becomes a “battery with a tank” that is never empty. This battery can also be operated using other fuels. Aside from pure hydrogen, gasses such as methane or propane, but also fluids such as ethanol can be used as a fuel. An upstream reformer produces hydrogen from these energy sources and in this way gets the fuel cells started.
In this way fuel cells can power many electrically-operated vehicles and systems sustainably and with no emissions. This is also an important aspect for the leisure area. For example on many lakes and rivers the operation of combustion engines has been restricted by law or completely prohibited. Why not then operate boats electrically? Fuel cells also make it possible to achieve great ranges with electrically-operated vehicles.
Among other issues, different kinds of fuel cells for specific applications in boats, camping vehicles and also electric light vehicles will be researched. Projects on these topics will be funded under the heading “Special markets” through the National Innovation Programme for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology (NIP). A high-profile large demonstration project is currently being implemented at Lake Constance (Bodensee).
Forklifts and other utility vehicles
They keep a low-profile, but they are working away everywhere: from forklifts to luggage towing tractors at the airport, many different kinds of utility vehicles are in operation every day. Depending on the particular area of operation, batteries and fuel cells could complement each other in these applications. Fuel cells ensure long operational time; batteries are connected for peak loads like for example, heavy lifting operations - in principle like a hybrid car, only fully emission-free.
The development of such fuel cell hybrid systems for utility vehicles is funded in the “Special markets” programme area through the National Innovation Programme for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology (NIP).