Dr. Werner Tillmetz has not only promoted the advancement of hydrogen and fuel cell technology for many years, he has also at various points played a decisive role in shaping it – be it as a board member of the PV and fuel cell research institute of the state of Baden-Württemberg (Zentrum für Solar- und Wasserstoffforschung, ZSW) or in the formulation of the national support program for hydrogen and fuel cell innovation (Nationales Innovationsprogramm Wasserstoff- und Brennstoffzellentechnologie, NIP). Sven Jösting, on behalf of H2-interntional, spoke with Tillmetz, who after retiring founded an H2 business network for the Lake Constance Region called h2connect.eco, and asked him for an assessment of the current developments.
H2-international: Dr. Tillmetz, you have dedicated your life to fuel cells, as people can tell from reading your wonderfully written book “Wasserstoff auf dem Weg zur Elektromobilität” (hydrogen on the way to e-mobility). Where are we today regarding fuel cells in mobility?
Interestingly, I’ve dealt with all these topics – electrolysis, fuel cells, batteries – somewhat equally, having worked in a wide variety of companies as well as in research. Quite an exciting wealth of experience. In the case of the fuel cell in mobility, it is fascinating to follow the now very broad and worldwide industrialization. Asian companies have started series production, but also German and European companies are now very successful in this. Technologically, fuel cells are ready for the market.
You are closely connected to development at Canadian company Ballard Power – including via cooperations with Ford, Daimler, and so on. Can you briefly describe for our readers how you’d valuate Ballard today?
In the 1990s, I was one of the pioneers in actively shaping the activities at these companies. Since 2003, I’ve been following the activities very intently from the outside and still have good contacts in the scene that I stay in touch with. When judging companies such as Ballard, on the one hand there is the technological point of view. In this respect, Ballard belongs, like previously, to the leading players. However, crucial is always economic developments. Here, the quarterly reports of the various publicly listed hydrogen startups give me pause, since with very few exceptions, losses have been similar to sales in value for the last twenty years. However, the market has only really recently started to develop well, primarily driven by legislation around the world towards climate protection. The number of acquisitions and the associated valuations are also impressive.
How would you appraise battery development? Why is especially the automotive industry set on battery-electric mobility and attempting to copy Tesla?
This is quite an exciting phenomenon. In recent years, the vehicle industry has failed to continue curbing global emissions legislation. At the same time, Tesla, an initially ridiculed competitor, came to the market and increasingly took sales away from the established companies in the high-margin segments. Quick action was called for, and the strategists reflexively said to themselves, “What Tesla can do, we can do too.” In this, they overestimated themselves and underestimated Tesla.
With e-vehicles, energy consumption and charging infrastructure are decisive. Tesla has excellently mastered both, while the big car companies, for example, are trying to delegate the issue of charging infrastructure to the state and to energy suppliers. With their billions in annual profit, they could make it themselves too – but profit takes precedence.
Two other major hurdles for the battery are becoming increasingly visible: where all the raw materials are going to come from and how enough green electricity for (fast) charging can be provided to meet demand.
There are various models of how hydrogen will be brought to use in motor vehicles. For example, there are models put forth in which ammonia, methanol or hydrogen (liquid or gaseous) are directly used in the engine – without the detour via a fuel cell. How do you assess this development? Is there a winner?
In general, we should be open to technology and let the engineers develop the best solutions. The legislators should only define the guard rails such as emissions. In my view, there are two crucial issues: the efficiency of the drive system and the availability of green fuel at the “gas station.”
For the dynamic operation of vehicles, electric motors with a battery have enormous advantages – a mechanical drive cannot achieve this efficiency. The (small) battery, however, can be charged by an engine or a fuel cell during the trip (serial hybrid) and then be run at the best time.
With regard to the supplying of the fuel: Hydrogen can, ideally, be directly generated in the region or transported by pipeline from sun- and wind-rich regions to filling stations throughout Europe. For the cost-effective overseas transport of energy from the world’s many sun belts, ideal is a fuel that is liquid at ambient temperature and easy to produce: methanol. At electricity prices of less than one euro cent per kilowatt-hour, the costs for generation play a very minor role. We are still at the very beginning of a marathon run – only at the finish will the wheat be separated from the chaff.
Competition has flared worldwide. What countries do you think have the better approaches?
German and EU policy is not very well thought-out strategically and is influenced by ideology in many places. On top of that is the very discussion-happy society and grassroots democratic structures that make much very slow. On the other hand, there are excellent, creative engineers and skilled workers and a solid industrial infrastructure, especially with the many family businesses that think long-term. Asian countries often have a better thought-out strategy and are much faster to implement. Last but not least comes California, with its extreme capital and readiness to take risks – the latter seems to be lost in Germany.
Now we come to charging infrastructure: electric charging stations versus hydrogen refueling stations. What should it be, do you think? Are there any critical views or visions about this that you have?
Battery-electric vehicles are best charged when and where there is direct green electricity and the fully charged battery is sufficient for a few days of driving – even when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. This can also be the case at the employer’s, for example, if they equip the parking spaces with photovoltaics or install small windmills on the roof. For all frequent drivers, city buses and transport companies, fast, flexible refueling is critical: you can fill up with green hydrogen or green methanol anytime, anywhere.
Where do you see the fuel cell going in the passenger car market? In the commercial vehicle, they’re indeed convinced that a fuel cell is advantageous over a battery for long journeys. What is the situation with passenger cars? Note there are rumors Apple could be entering the market with an iCar in 2024 that would make use of a small battery for short hauls and a fuel cell (H2) for long hauls. Do you think that’s realistic?
Modern fuel cell drives, including the tanks, are significantly lighter and smaller than a battery, for the ranges often required. The difference to the classic combustion engine is barely there. Whereas installing a battery of over 600 kilograms in a car or of up to five tonnes in a truck really makes no sense. Apple’s concept is good and is already commercially offered for the delivery vans and trucks of Renault and the Stellantis brands.
Which countries are ahead regarding fuel cells, and why?
It’s more about the companies than the countries. Both Toyota and Hyundai are taking their respective products (fuel cell system) into many applications and markets. That achieves quantity and thus reduces costs. Bosch has a powerful strategy and will supply its partners around the world very quickly. The French car companies have positioned themselves well with strategic partners. And of course so have the many Chinese companies, who will reach really large quantities the fastest.
Could you please develop a future scenario for the fuel cell and hydrogen? Where, in your opinion, do we stand today, in five years, in ten years and in 2040 in terms of hydrogen and fuel cells, but also batteries?
We are standing at the very start of a marathon. The changes will be as dramatic as they were more than a hundred years ago, when Henry Ford’s gasoline-powered carriage replaced horse-drawn carriages and the internal combustion engine completely changed the world for the next hundred years. With disruptive innovations, the changes are extremely rapid and hardly predictable, as the example of Kodak and digital photography has also shown us. The battery alone will not be the magical solution for everything, as Bosch chairman Stefan Hartung recently made very clear. To be able to get a handle on climate change at all, we need all options and, above all, more action than discussion.
What would policymakers (Germany, EU) have to do to give fuel cells and hydrogen in mobility a boost?
Be open to technology and have a holistically thought-out strategy. For this, it helps to look out of the window from time to time to see whether there is enough sun or wind to ensure the energy supply for all consumers.
Interviewer: Sven Jösting
Contribution to the efficiency debate
With reference to the guest opinions on e-fuels from the May 2022 issue of H2-international
“Efficiency first” or “Efficiency is key” – is what countless headlines read. This is then backed up with graphs that all suggest that battery-electric e-vehicles are dramatically better than fuel cell and hydrogen e-vehicles. And e-fuels rank far behind in last place. Often the efficiency (fuel or energy consumption) of the vehicle is then lumped together with that of the upstream chain (fuel production). A comparison with reality almost always leaves something to be desired.
Comparing the energy consumption between vehicles should actually be quite easy, if you also compare vehicles that are similar to each other. The consumption (or fuel economy) is stated in the sales prospectuses and is determined in accordance with criteria prescribed by law – unfortunately in varying units: electricity in kilowatt-hours, hydrogen in kilograms and liquid fuels in liters (or gallons), without taking calorific value into account.
The real world of consumption can be found in a thorough examination of the test reviews. There, one quickly discovers that the 20 to 30 percent advantage of battery-powered vehicles practically disappears in winter, when both the passenger compartment and the battery (for fast charging) have to be heated.
Now to the upstream chain of electricity or fuel production. Here, it is almost always assumed that the electricity to charge the battery comes directly from the photovoltaic or wind power plant. The fact that no sun shines at night, nor through rain, snow or fog, is interestingly omitted. The wind also does not always blow, especially in the South of Germany. If the electricity for charging the battery is generated via a gas turbine (efficiency: 40%) powered by natural gas, or in the future hydrogen, then hopes of first place in efficiency are quickly deflated. The direct use of hydrogen in a fuel cell vehicle makes more sense here.
This is true even if the electricity is 100 percent green. On many days in Germany, there is much more electricity from wind or sun than we need. Yet especially in the winter months, there may be no wind or sun for days. So the electricity needs to come from the wind- and sun-rich times of the year. The storage of such large amounts of energy, however, is only economically feasible with hydrogen.
Today, two-thirds of our energy supply is imported (oil, gas and coal). Although 100 percent self-sufficiency is theoretically possible in Germany, in reality it’s rather unlikely. Importing green energy from very sunny and windy regions makes a lot of sense economically. Transport via power lines will, however, be limited to certain regions such as the North Sea. Using the existing European gas grid for the transport of green energy in the form of hydrogen is more than logical. For overseas transport, liquid energy sources such as methanol or kerosene (e-fuels) are becoming unbeatably attractive. It is furthermore much more efficient to use this in the drive system than to remake electricity from it.
The green energy supply of the future, thought through to the end, is very different from what most headlines today suggest: electricity, hydrogen and e-fuels are all sensible green energy sources.
Author: Werner Tillmetz