The well-known German firm Robert Bosch GmbH raised eyebrows when it detailed a team of engineers to help the US startup Nikola Motors launch a new, improved version of its Nikola Tre fuel cell electric long haul truck. That was just a teaser. On July 13, Bosch devoted its entire Tech Day 2023 to lay out its fuel cell plans for the future, going far and wide with a focus on green hydrogen.
CleanTechnica is attending Bosch Tech Day 2023 in Stuttgart, Germany as a guest of the company. We previewed Bosch’s new renewable H2 water treatment system earlier this week and on-the-spot reporting will follow.
Bosch & Nikola Pursue Hydrogen Fuel Cell Dream Truck
Bosch technology has been playing a powerful behind-the-scenes role in the electric vehicle industry to cap a long record of engineering innovation, so it’s no surprise to find the company taking a dive into hydrogen fuel cells as well (complete CleanTechnica coverage is here).
The eyebrow-raising has more to do with Nikola. The company got off to a good start when it launched in 2014 with a mission to zero out Class 8 heavy duty truck emissions.
Nikola’s Tre fuel cell truck project was on track going into 2017, when word dropped that Nikola and Bosch would jointly develop the new powertrain using Bosch’s scalable, modular all-in-one eAxle. The two companies anticipated production by 2021.
A shakeup at Nikola reportedly shook the bloom off the rose in 2020, but the setback — if there was one — did not last long.
In September of 2021, Nikola and Bosch announced an agreement to move forward, with Nikola to build Bosch fuel cell power modules at its factory in Arizona for Nikola’s Class 7 and 8 fuel cell trucks, beginning with the Nikola Tre Class 8 truck at a range of 500 miles and then introducing the Nikola Two Class 8 truck at 900 miles.
New Life For Nikola
Apparently all that hard work has paid off. Bosch Tech Day 2023 started off with a press release announcing that Nikola is the pilot customer for Bosch’s fuel cell power module, now in commercial production at its plant in Stuttgart-Feuerbach. The company also affirmed that Nikola expects to begin production of the Tre Class 8 truck for the US market later this year, sometime during Q3.
Bosch has laid plans for its hydrogen-related businesses to account for €5 billion by 2030, based on the leverage of its current operations and knowledge base. The company already has a head start with a €2.5 billion plan for the years 2021 to 2026, representing 1 billion more than originally planned for 2021-202.
“Bosch is one of the very few companies that are capable of mass producing technology as complex as fuel-cell stacks,” explained Markus Heyn, who is a member of the Bosch board of management and chairman of Bosch Mobility. “We don’t just have the required systems expertise, but also the capability of quickly scaling up new developments to mass production.”
That means fuel cell trucks, trucks, and more trucks. Battery-electric trucks have a head start, but Bosch anticipates there will be plenty of room in the market for fuel cell trucks. The company anticipates 20% of new heavy duty trucks (6 tons or more) will be powered by fuel cells in the coming years.
Bosch intends to lean primarily on its German facilities to accomplish that, but plans are also in the works to produce the fuel cell module in China.
The US is next in line. In addition to the ongoing work with Nikola, Bosch has electric vehicle plans in the works for South Carolina, which dovetail with its plans to produce silicon carbide semiconductors in California upon the acquisition of US chipmaker TSI Semiconductor. Today’s press release affirmed that the South Carolina facility will manufacture fuel cell stacks for electric vehicles.
Green Hydrogen Economy Gets Thumbs-Up From Bosch
The dream of a zero emission hydrogen economy seemed like a climate protection oxymoron just a few years ago, when fossil energy — natural gas and coal — were the primary sources for the global hydrogen supply.
They still are, but new green hydrogen technology is beginning to push them aside. Biogas and other organic wastes are also in play, but the main focus of investor activity is on electrolysis systems that push hydrogen gas from water, with the electricity sourced from wind, solar, or other renewables.
The all-renewables angle has earned water-produced hydrogen the title of “green” hydrogen. Hydrogen recycled from industrial sources may also have a part to play in climate protection, but Bosch has committed to fuel cell mobility on the coattails of green hydrogen.
“Bosch technology starts with electrolysis and ends with the hydrogen engine,” the company emphasized, in case there is any doubt. “Only with hydrogen can there be a climate-neutral world. For Bosch, that is crystal-clear. The company therefore strongly advocates the establishment of a hydrogen economy.”
If there is still any doubt, that would be something for the politicians to determine. “[T]he further prospects for the hydrogen business depend on the political environment,” Bosch stated.
More Green Hydrogen For The Global Economy
The Biden administration has staked $8 billion to launch regional hydrogen hubs throughout the US, leveraging green hydrogen, recycled hydrogen, and even fossil hydrogen for anyone brave enough to continue carrying the torch for fossil energy past this summer’s climate-induced heat waves.
In consideration of competition from the US and elsewhere, Bosch Tech Day underscored a brief but sharp message for policy makers in Europe: Do more.
In remarks before the gathering, Bosch’s chairman of the board of management, Dr. Stefan Hartung, demanded that policy makers set the stage for stepping up hydrogen production and distribution in the EU, and cultivating global supply chains.
Hartung also advocated for deploying hydrogen as an all-purpose, economy-wide input. In that regard, it’s worth mentioning that hydrogen is more than a fuel for EVs and internal combustion engines. Modern industrial economies are already steeped in hydrogen that is front-loaded with fossil energy. By turning to green hydrogen, industrialized economies can decarbonize their fertilizer and food processing sectors as well as pharmaceuticals, metallurgy, refining, personal care product and other ubiquitous activities.
Green Hydrogen Goes With Power Plants, Too
The pathway from water electrolysis to fuel cells is a two-way street. Fuel cells generate water when the hydrogen fuel interacts with ambient oxygen. Producing green hydrogen from an electrolysis system essentially works the same process in reverse, which explains why Bosch is inclined to pitch both electrolysis and fuel cells under the same roof.
They are not letting any grass grow under their feet. Bosch set to work on proton exchange membrane electrolysis systems earlier this year. They expect to have 1.25-megawatt prototypes available for pilot applications in short order towards volume production in 2025.
Aside from its use in mobile fuel cells, green hydrogen is coming into use for stationary applications. Bosch is considering new solid oxide fuel cell technology for stationary use, and has identified a hospital in Germany as a candidate for its first fuel cell micro power plant.
Bosch is also among those advocating for green hydrogen to replace fossil fuel in internal combustion engines. That could eventually dovetail with the electrofuels trend, which CleanTechnica has spotted in motorsports. For the here and now, though, Bosch is focusing on the market for heavier-than-usual heavy duty long haul trucks, where extra juice is needed.
Bosch expects its hydrogen engine to be ready for production next year. That seems particularly ambitious, but as Bosch explains, “more than 90 percent of the development and manufacturing technologies needed for it already exist.”
The big question is whether or not an ample supply of green hydrogen will be available. Bosch plans to run its stationary fuel cell on natural gas until the green hydrogen supply chain ramps up, and the same strategy may be in play for its hydrogen engine.
In terms of climate protection that’s not an optimal solution, though a realistic one. It’s also consistent with activity in the gas turbine market, where manufacturers are designing turbines that can incorporate increasing amounts of green hydrogen as supplies become available.
Speaking of climate protection, the deadline for meaningful action is already heaving into view, alongside a dangerous streak of pessimism. Companies like Bosch help beat back the doomsayers when they pivot their massive resources to decarbonization. The Bosch Group currently counts 470 different entities under the Robert Bosch GmbH umbrella spread over 60 countries. Throw in sales and service partners, and the reach extends to practically every nation on Earth.
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Photo: Bosch engineers are working with Nikola to develop the next generation of fuel cell electric trucks, with an emphasis on green hydrogen (courtesy of Bosch).
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