Better together: battery and fuel cell
Electrochemical energy storage devices are on their way. Which technologies are catching on and how can we make the right decision today to secure the future?
The energy transition has arrived in the automotive sector. Whilst there are already thousands of electric vehicles on the road, research is still being done in parallel into the charging infrastructure. As experts in energy storage systems – would you say that your work is currently getting easier or more difficult?
Nicolas Teuffel von Birkensee: It's getting more exciting. The automotive industry is just one of many areas that we are currently working in. Right now, all the stakeholders in the market are facing a challenge – from those generating the energy and the providers through to the customer and beyond, if we think about bi-directional charging or the circular flow of batteries.
Patrick Wienert: At the moment, we are working with customers on the new challenges in the energy market. One of the problems that our partners are currently occupied with is the impact of a charging system for battery-driven electric vehicles that is very much focused on time. With a view to the huge charging capacity that will become possible in the future, which could also be of benefit to private vehicles, this is a challenge for the networks. The whole thing gets even more challenging if we start to talk about commercial applications – in particular heavy goods transport.
Philipp Wunderlich: Currently a very dynamic market environment is developing. The transformation of the established players is well underway and remains a big challenge. On top of this, we are seeing some completely new market players entering the market. This is a historic opportunity for new companies across the entire ecosystem of the energy sector and electromobility. The sticking point is that, wherever you turn, there is a shortage of skilled personnel.
Battery and hydrogen fuel cells are in a race to become the key technology. Which different scenarios are they best suited to?
Patrick Wienert: In terms of technologies for the decarbonisation of the transport sector, these are the two most advanced alternatives. From the point of view of the market, the battery is well ahead. Driving an electric vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell is still a niche idea. In the use of hydrogen-based technologies, two of the decisive factors are the figures for gravimetric and volumetric energy density – meaning how large and how heavy the system for storing energy in the vehicle in question is. There are also discussions underway on charging times and on questions of cost and efficiency, which in some cases are conducted in a very generalising manner.
Why is this?
Patrick Wienert: If I need less green electricity, for example to power a vehicle, it is logical that it will also be cheaper to drive it with electricity. However, if achieving this requires huge expansion and modification of the networks, then this has to be included in my calculations. In addition to this, usability is always a key issue. For freight transport and aviation, charging times play an important role. Here, we are currently looking at fast charging systems for batteries versus a user-friendly hydrogen refuelling network for fuel cells.
Philipp Wunderlich: We are examining the requirements in great detail for our customers. In a battery, all the energy carriers, i.e. the materials that store the energy, are already on board. With the fuel cell, we add the energy via hydrogen in a highly compressed form. This can result in more energy density. But for us to do this, hydrogen needs to be generated, transported and stored, which is expensive.
Nicolas Teuffel von Birkensee: Whether the use of batteries vs. fuel cells makes sense also depends on the potential stringency in terms of development. Although OEMs have been organising fuel cell projects for many years now, the clear focus in recent years has been on the development of batteries. The substitution of the powertrain by an electric version has developed to the point where we are redefining and redesigning vehicle architecture. With fuel cells, most manufacturers have up to now only tried installing them where the engine used to be, with a hydrogen tank instead of a petrol tank. I still see a lot of potential for development in this area, in particular for cars and commercial vehicles.
Whilst hydrogen fuel cells offer a clean source of energy with a high energy density for the transport sector, the technology is still very expensive and based on a limited infrastructure. Which decisions could change that?
Patrick Wienert: Freight transport in trucks, by sea and by air needs to be decarbonised to a greater degree. We are indeed already seeing the first fleet targets, but manufacturers are lagging way behind. Nevertheless, the question of the cost of the vehicles is a problem that will become less of an issue as production increasingly scales up and we see further advances in technology. This also applies to batteries. A much bigger challenge is to harness sufficient sources of renewable energy to produce reasonably priced, green electricity that we can use to charge batteries or to use in fuel cells after transformation into hydrogen. The big question is rather how we should design the overall energy system in order to have sufficient green energy in Germany. We are still far away from achieving this. Import plays a major role here, we know that energy will in future ideally come in the form of hydrogen or derivatives.
Philipp Wunderlich: Today, the most highly advanced technology in commercial terms is the lithium-ion battery – and it is the most practical solution to power passenger vehicles and other lightweight electric vehicles. Flying great distances in large aircraft with an electric battery – this is an area where the battery is today still reaching its technological limits. The high gravimetric energy of hydrogen could help. Here we will see hydrogen in a race to catch up when the pressure on OEMs increases further.
You help global companies to make decisions that will perhaps pay off in 2040 or 2050. What gives you security?
Philipp Wunderlich: We have confidence in the technology. The hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell and the lithium-ion battery are currently the best electrochemical energy storage units. There have never been any better storage solutions in the past – that's something we can examine in testing and we develop our own solutions for our customers in our Engineering department. Furthermore, we know all the market players along the value chain in these two key industries. There are countless studies that have been conducted by renowned institutes and universities from which we develop metastudies – and of course, the government, who is inclined to create long-term security by offering funding.
Patrick Wienert: Beyond this, we look very precisely at every scenario. As an example, we are currently advising an OEM that manufactures stationary energy systems, such as combined heat and power plants, which are used to supply energy and heat to a Swiss mountain village, a hospital or a data centre, for example. This customer will in future offer solutions on the basis of our recommendations, which we derive from market observation, our own technological knowledge and skills and – very important – our involvement in regulatory work. You can never achieve 100 % certainty. Even we get it wrong sometimes. But we monitor developments very closely, so that we can be proactive and adjust our recommendations where necessary.
Nicolas Teuffel von Birkensee: It’s the job of our team to confront the truck OEM, battery manufacturer or automotive group with systematic questions. In our consultation sessions, we go through scenarios in 20 years' time. By then, the production capacity will have been set up and we will ideally only need to import a small percentage of our green energy. It helps to keep this in mind. At the same time, we see many development projects, with different strategies being implemented by our customers. So we are looking at various different paths that could lead to the goal.
What role does umlaut's attitude towards sustainable business play in your work?
Philipp Wunderlich: It is our job to add value, to facilitate growth and hopefully also to create jobs. Environmental and climate-related issues have become embedded in the company's conscience and this has a noticeable impact on our customers in the various industries we work in. We need to put forward arguments that make sense in economic and ecological terms – without the circular economy, a European value chain for batteries would be unthinkable.
Patrick Wienert: A significant proportion of our customers would be happy to carry on as before out of uncertainty. At the same time, they see the responsibility and the risk of missing something – like Nokia back in the day, when their decision-makers unfortunately didn't believe that the smartphone would catch on. I am very honest in our projects. Of course, it would make sense in the short term to retain 10,000 jobs in a brown coal region. Yet, in the long term, we hope that these jobs won't be swept away due to flooding. And furthermore – and this is something a lot of our customers see – the new technologies are precisely what can actually make Germany into an important global location for innovation and production in the long term.
Nicolas Teuffel von Birkensee: We are working with rare earths and other rare metals. It is good that, from the very start, attention be paid to where these resources are coming from and where they end up. For this reason, when it comes to the development of batteries, for example, not only do we work closely with OEMs and suppliers, but also with manufacturers of stationary batteries so that we can pursue second life approaches. Now we have an opportunity to do it all better.
Nicolas Frhr. Teuffel von Birkensee
Head of Automotive Engineering
|+49 151 276547550|
Head of Hydrogen
|+49 151 527 387 15|
|+49 1517 4446019|