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HZwo Network - Helping Fuel Cell Drive Systems Achieve the Breakthrough

Many German universities and institutes are researching alternative drive systems in order to achieve economically and ecologically viable mobility. When breaking the topic down to the level of fuel cell drive systems and powertrains, then only a few institutions remain. Chemnitz University of Technology is one of them. It is here where Prof. Dr. Thomas von Unwerth established the Professorship of Advanced Powertrains in 2010 and put the topic hydrogen fuel cell drive systems into the focus of research. At that time he could already look back on a decade of experience in this field. He earned this competence in the corporate research of Volkswagen and while working, for example, also on the creation of a fuel cell vehicle fleet for the 2008 Summer Olympics in China.

Creating this professorship was a very prudent and farsighted decision undertaken by the university’s committees in Chemnitz back then. And he has never regretted his application even once, emphasizes Professor von Unwerth: “I knew that I’d be coming to a region with a lot of expert knowledge in the field of automobiles; it’s after all, Autoland Saxony. Here, there are many well established SMEs as well as start-ups which focus on innovative tasks for new forms of mobility. This permitted us to find many partners with whom we’re working on the powertrains of tomorrow.”

One such drive system is electric mobility which includes not only the battery-based but also the hydrogen-based technology. The chemical energy released from the reaction of hydrogen with oxygen is converted directly into electric power in a fuel cell which is then used in the powertrain. Neither combustion nor intermediate storage are necessary. Nonetheless, these vehicles also have a battery on board, for example, to collect and store the brake energy.

Professor von Unwerth is convinced that especially electric vehicles powered by fuel cells can prove their worth in the long distance sector. Models which are either already on the market or in development can travel distances of 400 to 600 kilometers. It is possible to drive about 100 kilometers with one kilogram of hydrogen. A tank system has on average a capacity of five to six kilograms. And the refueling process takes about three to five minutes. The current network of filling stations can be expanded with considerably less effort and at considerably less cost than the installation of a completely new network of charging stations. And the vehicles create no other emissions than water vapor. These advantages make fuel cell powered e-vehicles appear to be significantly more suitable for everyday use than battery based e-vehicles. What then is preventing the widespread use of this propulsion technology?

“At the moment, there are no large-scale production and cost-efficient processes available to produce the necessary components,” knows Professor von Unwerth. In order to change this situation, he’s concentrating and focusing Saxony’s competences and expertise in this field with partners in the “HZwo: Antrieb für Sachsen” [Drive for Saxony] network. It is at the same time Saxony’s first InnoTeam, a new element in the  Federal State’s technology funding program, which is designed to promote and advance the cooperation of industry and research institutions in developing new products and/or processes.

A current HZwo project focuses on the key component of the fuel cell powertrain – the bipolar plate where the hydrogen gas is converted into protons and electrons. On average, 800 plates are needed for a fuel cell stack in a vehicle. The production of these often graphite-based components is currently still very complex and expensive. That’s why the scientists from Chemnitz are working with partners from industry on a new bipolar plate which can be produced cost-efficiently with industrial-scale manufacturing processes and production facilities. A prototype is to be created by 2019.

The development team wants to use stainless steel as the material for the fuel cell. “Compared to graphite, the plates can be made much thinner and produced cheaper. In so doing, we’re also supporting the efforts of the automobile industry for lightweight construction,” explains Professor von Unwerth the material choice. The material experts in the project come from the Aue-based Auerhammer Metallwerk GmbH. They’re developing a functionalized semi-finished material. That’s a plating consisting of various metals that have the appropriate, required chemical, physical, and economic properties as the initial material for the manufacturing process of the bipolar plate. “We see the fuel cell as the key technology for e-mobility because hydrogen is the only energy source which permits long distance travel at zero emissions,” explains Managing Director Dr. Rainhard Laag the company’s motivation for being a part of the project. By participating in the development of the bipolar plate and the manufacturing process, the company from the Erzgebirge Mountains expects to have a competitive edge in the production of the initial material and, thus, also access to the expanding market of the fuel cells.

The bipolar plates require coatings to attain physical and chemical properties that are comparable to graphite plates. The necessary knowledge and expertise encompassing research and development all the way to industrial coating solutions is provided in the project by the Dresden-based VON ARDENNE GmbH.

Another industrial partner is the WätaS Wärmetauscher Sachsen GmbH from Obernhau. “WätaS is creating a new mainstay for its future by participating in the project. This way, stand-alone products can be created which we’ll bring to the market. Thus, we as a supplier have the opportunity of tapping into a promising new market segment with enormous growth potentials,” notes Managing Director Torsten Enders. In about five years, the company plans to be able to operate the entire production process of fuel cells with all their components. The head of the company sees herein also other opportunities, for example, for his staff: “The InnoTeam is an investment into our minds. In this undertaking, project staff are developing already today future production technologies which will allow them to become stakeholders in the production. In so doing, they’re also assuming responsibilities, are actively participating in the development of our company, and are qualifying themselves further. The project, for example, provides the opportunity of earning a doctoral degree.”

Professor von Unwerth and the other stakeholders are also seeing the topic of general and continued education and training for fuel cell powertrains above and beyond the project: “In order to be able to build and maintain fuel cell vehicles tomorrow, we have to start today with qualifying the necessary skilled professionals. As a university, we’re already active when it comes to educating engineers and offer specific modules for the specialization in advanced powertrains that are part of many degree programs; including an international double master’s degree program. Here, we’re working together with universities from the Czech Republic, France, and the Netherlands,” explains Professor von Unwerth.

Chemnitz University of Technology cooperates closely with the Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology (IWU) in order to expand the HZwo network. The creation and development of competences at various levels as well as the cooperation among research and industry form the basis of and shape the overall goal – the establishment of a complete value creation chain for fuel cell drive system components in Autoland Saxony.

Additional Links
Prof. Dr. Thomas von Unwerth (l.), Inhaber der Professur Alternative Fahrzeugantriebe an der TU Chemnitz, an einem Brennstoffzellensystem. (Quelle: Steve Conrad / Professur Alternative Fahrzeugantriebe / TU Chemnitz)

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