Published on May 21st, 2015 | by Tina Casey75
A Cautionary Tale About Fuel Cells From Germany’s Fuel Cell Experts
May 21st, 2015 by Tina Casey
Our lab tour through Germany on the way to Saturday’s Formula E series all-electric vehicle race in Berlin has taken us along a winding path through cyber-physical systems, augmented reality, precision farming, and microfluidics, to name just a few things. We’ll get to all that stuff eventually, but for now we want to zero in on Wednesday’s visit to the research center Fraunhofer ICT-IMM in Mainz, for a big-picture sense of what the future has in store for fuel cells.
That’s quite timely because the last time we heard from Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag, he was hinting that fuel cells could be in the running for a future iteration of energy storage for the championship series. Now in its first season, Formula E currently requires that the participating teams use a standard EV battery.
VeGA Fuel Cells: The Answer To A Power Problem
Among other areas of expertise, Fraunhofer ICT-IMM focuses on fuel cell research and we were fortunate to have Professor Dr. Gunther Kolb, head of the Department of Decentralized and Mobile Energy Technology, greet our group in person and explain the sad tale of one such program: the Truma VeGA fuel cell.
Fraunhofer ICT-IMM is part of the sprawling Fraunhofer network of nonprofit research institutes in Germany (and beyond) that are tasked with bringing pure research to market by partnering with private firms.
Fraunhofer’s partner for the VeGA fuel cell project was the German company Truma, a long-running specialist in caravan heating and power systems (factoid: yes, named after the US president Harry Truman).
Truma found itself running into a power wall (no, not that Powerwall) when its customers began loading their caravans with electronic gadgets and other electrical equipment. That would result in batteries draining more quickly, which resulted in more trips to a charging opportunity, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of off-grid caravanning.
That’s similar to the problem faced by modern foot soldiers, who have hit a similar wall: a full load of electronic gear requires loads of different batteries, and the total load creates a huge physical burden that limits mobility options.
For Truma, the solution was to offer on-board fuel cells for recharging caravan batteries. The challenge was to fit the fuel cell into a dedicated space in a tightly packed caravan, and the price point had to be low enough to attract customers.
The VeGA fuel cell solution that the folks at Fraunhofer and Truma came up with solved some of those problems. In prototype form (pictured above, on display at Fraunhofer), VeGA won the silver f-Cell Award in 2007 and it won the 2008 Bavarian Energy Award.
The team went with liquified petroleum gas (LPG) as a precursor to generating hydrogen for the fuel cell, in order to use the existing recreational fuel infrastructure to leverage consumer interest.
Here’s the rundown from Fraunhofer:
The LPG is desulphurised in the system, converted into hydrogen in the fuel processor and further into power in the fuel cell stack. A DC/DC converter adapts the voltage of the generated power to the requirements of the battery, which is loaded by the system as soon as the voltage level falls beneath a certain critical value. By these means, about 28 kWh power can be generated out of an 11 kg LPG-container.
The prototype version was too expensive to bring to market. Just as importantly, it was too large and clunky to fit into an existing caravan space, but after a few more years of tinkering, the VeGA was ready for its closeup — leaner, meaner, and a lot cheaper.
Here’s a shot of the finished product on display at Fraunhofer (same angle as the prototype):
Truma rolled the product out in 2012, and then shut it down just a couple of years later. If you blinked, you missed it.
VeGA Fuel Cell, We Hardly Knew You
What happened to the Truma VeGA fuel cell? According to Dr. Kolb, while the cost of production came down considerably, it was still not low enough to attract enough customers and turn a profit. On its website, Truma further elaborates that emerging supply chain issues made it impossible to off the fuel cell at a reasonable price.
The Fuel Cell Is Dead, Long Live The Fuel Cell
So, that was the end of the VeGA. But that was certainly not the end of Fraunhofer’s forays into fuel cells. During our visit to Fraunhofer, Dr. Kolb was emphatic that fuel cell technology is “absolutely competitive” with battery technology. While price is the over-riding factor in the consumer market for fuel cells, in other markets the money thing can be counterbalanced by other factors.
Fraunhofer, for example, is currently developing a product for the airline market with the German aircraft cabin design specialists Diehl Aerosystems.
Called Project DIANA, it consists of a fuel cell packed onto a trolley that can fit into an existing space in an aircraft kitchen galley. As with the caravan fuel cells, the idea is to provide more power to meet growing demand, while fitting into a tightly defined space. In its current iteration, DIANA is designed as an autonomous, mini power plant for each galley, with an eye toward eventually providing enough power for the entire cabin. When the plane lands, the trolley can be rolled out and replaced quickly along with all of the other galley supplies.
A compact, portable, quick-refueling, off-grid, noiseless, relatively lightweight, zero-emission energy system also has value in military applications, as well as in emergency response, temporary clinics, field labs, and other sensitive work.
Fuel cells are also beginning to gain importance in programs aimed at improving air quality in seaports, and they are gaining traction in warehouse logistics. For some examples, check out the long list of customers for fuel cell electric lift trucks cited by the company Plug Power.
As for sustainability, Dr. Kolb noted that non-fossil methods for generating hydrogen fuel are already emerging. He also noted that Fraunhofer has partnered with Volvo (among others) in a project that uses low sulfur diesel to power a fuel cell, which in principle could be tweaked to apply to bio-diesel (PowerCell is a Volvo spinout company).
In addition, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems has developed a fuel cell that runs on bio-ethanol.
And yes, the fuel cell electric lift truck does bring us right over to our favorite topic, fuel cell electric vehicles. In the context of improving electric vehicle battery range, Dr. Kolb floated the idea that “a better solution at the end” would be to equip battery electric vehicles with range extenders in the form of fuel cells.
We thought of that, too, a while back. If you have any thoughts on the topic, drop us a note in the comment thread.
Photo Credits: Tina Casey, at Fraunhofer ICT-IMM, Meinz.
*This CleanTechnica technology tour was sponsored by GTAI (Germany Trade and Invest) in partnership with Baden-Württemberg International GmbH in Baden-Württemberg (Stuttgart, Karlsruhe), Investitions und Strukturbank Rheinland-Pfalz in Rheinland-Pfalz (Kaiserslautern, Mainz), and Berlin Partner für Wirtschaft und Technologie GmbH in Berlin.