Fuel Cell Research and Development in Southern Germany: Institutes and Companies Forging Ahead into the Future

By Rolf Hug

Research facilities and companies are searching for the energy carriers of the future: Southern Germany is working on the link between (solar) hydrogen and the economy. In Baden-Wuerttemberg's capital city, Stuttgart, and its surroundings, high-tech is at the forefront - not only in colleges and research laboratories, but also in medium-sized companies and industry. Supported by the Business Promotion Association of the Stuttgart Region (Wirtschaftsfördergesellschaft der Region Stuttgart (WRS)), these facilities are building a so-called cluster, which is working on the fuel cell and its practical use. Research facilities, industry, the power supplying industry and providers have joined forces to become a network that should bring energy technology of the twenty first century forward. By combining the research potential of the newly joined forces, the development of stationary, mobile and portable fuel cell uses should be accelerated. The WRS expects clear advantages in global competition from this cooperation; the region expects the creation of future-oriented jobs; cities and communities hope for inland revenue and resources for the expansion of the economic and cultural infrastructures.

The state of Baden-Wuerttemberg is planning an Expertise Center for Fuel Cells, and the WRS for the first time held an international congress in Stuttgart from October 15-16: The target group of the conference, named "f-cell", and the accompanying exhibition are producers and users. The convention should coordinate the multifaceted activities around the fuel cell, offer information on suppliers of certain products and their services and ultimately tout the market opportunities of the new technology. On October 15 the "f-cell-award" from WRS, DaimlerChrysler AG and EnBW AG was given for the very first time. The innovation prize for fuel cells includes 50,000 DM, or about $ 25,000.

Many of the participants came from Stuttgart and the surrounding region in Southern Germany. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR)) with its Institute for Technological Thermodynamics (Institut für Technische Thermodynamik (ITT)) is also based here. In Kirchheim-Nabern DaimlerChrysler AG, a subsidiary of the US fuel cell manufacturer Ballard Power Systems and EXCELLSIS GmbH are all working together to find solutions for the use of fuel cells in cars. In Ulm work area II of the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research (Zentrum für Sonnenenergie- und Wasserstoff-Forschung (ZSW)) is researching portable systems.

The "Guide to Expertise in Fuel Cells 2001/2002" ("Kompetenzatlas Brennstoffzelle 2001/2002") published by WRS presents 5 initiatives and projects and 15 companies as well as 7 research facilities all in Southern Germany.

fuel cell stack
50-cell fuel cell stack from ZSW Ulm with a 1 kW output.
Photo: ZSW

Hydrogen Instead of Oil and Coal - Dreams of the Future or Energy Turning Point?

Passenger cars and busses whose exhausts approach zero make individual mobility in cities and cross-country possible. Fuel cell aggregates replace the heating systems in homes, companies, or entire residential areas. Laptops, portable MP3 players and other electronic devices operate for long periods - all visions, which in just a few years could become reality: The highly effective energy converter called fuel cell and hydrogen as the energy source should become the basis of a completely changed power supply. The fuel cell directly produces energy, without the detour that comes with combustion processes, and powered by hydrogen it is even zero-emission. Hydrogen (H) and Oxygen (O) react in the cell, electric current is produced, and water (H2O) remains. In the ideal case the hydrogen would be produced by solar means: photovoltaic systems deliver the electricity for electrolysis, the process whereby water is separated into its component elements oxygen and hydrogen. In the fuel cell, this process proceeds in the reverse direction: electric and thermal energy become usable.

Schematic diagram showing the functioning of a proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEFC) powered by hydrogen/oxygen.


Results from Astronautic-Research for Everyday Use

The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR)), with almost 5,000 employees at eight sites and four satellite stations making it the largest engineering facility in Germany, uses high-tech know how for down-to-earth purposes. Its Stuttgart Institute for Technological Thermodynamics (Stuttgarter Institut für Technische Thermodynamik (ITT)) is researching the possible uses of fuel cells, which among other things permitted the first moon landing in 1969. Fuel cells also provide the space shuttle with energy and heat.

With its project HYSOLAR, the ITT has collected many years of experience in the design, construction and operation of systems that, by means of electrolysis, produce hydrogen from energy provided by solar means: The DLR produces solar hydrogen with photovoltaic systems. This is done in Stuttgart, Germany with a 10 kWp plant and in the Saudi-Arabian Riad on a large scale with a solar current output of 350 kilowatts. The DLR had already fueled a car with hydrogen in the 80's - the voluminous fuel tank has since been placed on display in the foyer of the HYSOLAR building, and the since discarded fuel station is guarded in the basement. The scientists are postulating new tasks and projects for the use of hydrogen because the manufacturing costs of fuel cells are still too high when compared to their life spans.


Effective Energy Supply on Large and Small Scales

Another advantage of fuel cells is the numerous possible uses. With an operating temperature at about 80 ºC, a proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEFC) is used for portable and stationary systems for the supply electricity as well as for hydrogen-fueled electric automobiles. High temperature SOFC cells (Solid Oxide Fuel Cell) operate in the range from 900 - 1000 ºC. Their cores, the membrane electrodes assembly (MEA), are composed of three layers: anode, electrolyte (ceramic electrolytic conductor) and cathode. At the phase boundary of the cathode the oxygen protons (+) migrate through the electrolyte to the anode, while the electrons (-) take a detour from which electric current can be diverted and used. Up to now, the ceramic-oxide electrolyte only becomes electrolytically conductive at operating temperatures around 900 ºC.

The high temperature SOFC cells are especially suited to stationary hydrogen use in thermal electric cogeneration plants. In 1998 a 100 kW pilot plant was erected by Westinghouse in Holland. Together with Siemens Westinghouse/Siemens AG, Gaz des France (GDF) and Tiroler Wasserkraftwerke AG, EnBW AG is planning a power plant with a one megawatt output in the Southern German city Marbach. The additional use of the fuel cells' waste heat by means of a series-connected micro gas turbine should raise operating efficiency to 60 percent of the net electric efficiency. The MEGASOFC project should begin operating at a historic power plant site in 2003. In one of the former boiler houses of the Energy and Technology Park in Marbach, highly valuable solar technology is being manufactured: The Würth Solar GmbH has been producing thin-layer cells since June 2000.

fuel cell power plant
3-D diagram of the planned 1-MW-SOFC fuel cell power plant of EnBW.
Graphic: EnBW

fuel cell plant
High temperature fuel cell plant of Siemens Westinghouse / Siemens AG.
Photo: Siemens AG


New Production Processes and Tests for Cost Reduction

According to information from the developers, fuel cells are technologically mature and already have reached a satisfactory life span - but they are still too expensive to be economical. Therefore, the researchers of DLR have developed a plasma-spray process for the ceramic oxide solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC), and they found a solution for the industrial manufacture of the electrode-membrane-unit of the proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEFC). Since 1997, the ITT has operated a trial plant for polymer membrane cells (PEM) in its HYSOLAR building.

This plant serves to provide analysis and trial of new and improved components as well as technical system inspections. The electric power output of the entire system reaches up to 12 kW el; it can be used for electric energy production in the stationary electric-current mode, as a block-type thermal power station (BTTP) in the heat production mode, as well as for the simulation of mobile uses. For fuel, hydrogen produced by solar powered electrolysis is used: With purified ambient air as an oxidant, the tested PEM blocks deliver zero-emissions energy.

Solar-generated hydrogen, however, is not yet available on the market - for the foreseeable future, therefore, industry is using methanol or reformulated natural gas as the primary energy sources. And the engineers at ITT are broadening their offered range of services to include tests of cells that operate on these energy sources.

test facility PEMA
Polymer membrane fuel cell test facility PEMA.
Photo: DLR.


Fuel Cells for Portable Use

The Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research (Zentrum für Sonnenenergie und Wasserstoff-Forschung (ZSW)) in Ulm is also bringing PEM fuel cells to the market as an energy source in buildings and portable devices. Here components and systems are also tested and optimized. The output spectrum ranges from 0.1 to 100 kilowatts (kW). With their compact Powerbag (20 cell stacks, 200 watt continuous output), the researchers from Ulm have created a mobile power plant that can power boats, refrigerators or be used as a portable power supply. The ZSW "Fuel Cell Powerbag" measures a mere 45 x 40 x 32 cm.

But it still gets smaller: methanol cells can supply electricity storage devices for mobile phones or even flashlights with noiseless and zero-emissions power. The fuel methanol distinguishes itself with its high energy density and can be produced from numerous raw materials, for example from natural gas, and, on a middle and long term basis, from renewable energy sources like biomass and scrap wood or from garbage remnants. The "Maglite BZ" flashlight contains a three-cell stack with a four-watt maximum output. The integrated metal hydride cartridge delivers 30 watt-hours of energy.

fuel cell flashlight

Fuel cell flashlight "Maglite BZ" from ZSW Ulm. Photo: ZSW.


With new Propulsion into the Future

The automobile industry is also betting on methanol. Currently, all well-known automobile manufacturers are testing fuel cells in everyday operation. In California more than 50 such cars are in transit. In Kirchheim-Zabern between Stuttgart and Ulm in Southern Germany the most advanced mobile fuel cell aggregates are operating: A fuel cell bus from DaimlerChrysler AG, the delivery van "Sprinter" and the Hydrogen-A-Class in the form of the NECAR.

The 500 employees of the DaimlerChrysler, Ballard Power Systems and the XCELLSIS GmbH fuel cell project house are pursuing the goal to reduce street traffic CO2 emissions, to improve the air quality in large cities and to reduce dependence on oil.Fuel cell automobiles from

The fuel cell uses the fuel's energy almost twice as well as a gasoline engine. "Worldwide the automobile industry is working high pressure on the fuel cell," describes the chairman of the board of DaimlerChrysler, Jürgen Schremp, and these current activities are represented by a large number of newly created jobs. "In Germany alone over 1,000 highly qualified jobs have come into being because of fuel cell technology, about 500 of which are at DaimlerChrysler and its subsidiaries. In recent years the company has fitted 16 cars, transporters and busses with fuel cell propulsion. By the end of 2002 the first busses will be delivered to European city public transportation companies, the first cars will follow in 2004."

fuel cell vehicles
DaimlerChrysler AG.
Photo: DaimlerChrysler AG

A trial drive with the NEBUS (New Electric Bus) is convincing: The automobile accelerates smoothly thanks to its electric motor yet still powerfully like a diesel, and with its top speed of 80 kilometers per hour, it can easily keep up with city traffic and proves itself to be exceptionally quiet. The fuel cells don't just provide the propulsion for the bus, but they also deliver electric current for the air conditioning or the heating system, independent of driving operation.

With the Fuel Cell-A-Class DaimlerChrysler wants to begin mass production. The first automobiles suitable for everyday use should already be in transit and tested as a fleet in 2004; the market introduction is planned for 2010. The NECAR has changed significantly since its premier in 1994: back then an entire transport van was needed to fit the fuel cell aggregate, whereas now the Light-Duty Fuel Cell-Engine from EXCELLSIS fits in the sandwich floor of the compact car. The NECAR 5 reaches speeds up to 150 kilometers per hour. Its propulsion aggregate isn't only 50 % more efficient than that of the NECAR 3 from 1997, but it is also just half the size and weighs 300 kilos less. Another option is the direct methanol fuel cell, which makes the on-board generation of hydrogen superfluous, and that could make the system even more compact and simpler.

Fuel cells for the home: The KOSMOS experimentation case.
Photo: Franckh-Kosmos Publishing Company.

The publishing company Franckh-Kosmos is offering a very simple and compact model of a car: The KOSMOS experimentation case "fuel cell" contains a reversible cell. By means of electrolysis powered by a solar module, hydrogen is generated, which is then led to the fuel cell producing electric energy and water. This clearly and graphically describes fuel cell technology.


Also read the Solar-Report "Fuel Cells and Solar Hydrogen - A Power Package For the Future?"

You can obtain the KOSMOS - Experimentation Case "Fuel Cell" in the SolarserverStore

The Solar-Lexicon offers clear and concise information on fuel cells as well as links to other websites.

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