11-06-08 The Mercedes F-CELL World Drive

The Mercedes F-CELL World Drive

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08 Jun 2011PDF (573 kb)

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11-06-08 The Mercedes F-CELL World Drive

At the end of January 2011, Daimler AG celebrated the 125th anniversary of the automobile. Amongst celebrations of the past, Dr. Dieter Zetsche (Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars) looked to the future, emphasising the challenge of transitioning to sustainable transport. Dr. Zetsche speculated, “If Daimler and Benz were still alive today, they would advise us to make green cars even more fascinating and fascinating cars even greener. Only attractive innovations are effective innovations.” Of course one such route to sustainable mobility is through the use of fuel cells and hydrogen. Despite being on the cusp of widespread commercialisation, fuel cell vehicles have become overshadowed by their battery and hybrid contemporaries. Bringing fuel cell vehicles back into the eyes of the popular media, Dr. Zetsche, together with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Michael Schumacher and others, officially launched the Mercedes-Benz F-CELL World Drive.

Originally announced at the 2011 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), the World Drive aimed to circumnavigate the globe in 125 days using three Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL cars. Starting from the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, they planned to cross, in order, southern Europe, North America, Australia, Asia and China, and Russia before returning to their exact starting point in Stuttgart. The B-Class F-CELLs have a 136 horsepower electric engine and an operating range of 250 miles (400 km).

Throughout the duration of the World Drive, the cars demonstrated exceptional versatility and reliability, with Daimler claiming no problems at all relating to the fuel cell drivetrain. Dr. Christian Mohrdieck, head of fuel cell development at Daimler, says of the F-CELL B-Class: “The most spectacular thing about it is how unspectacular it is.”

The cars have proven that fuel cell powered vehicles are ready for real-world and widespread use, but it seems to me that there is a bittersweet intention from Daimler in the World Drive. The technology is ready, but the refuelling infrastructure is not. Partnering with the Linde Group, the cars primarily refuelled from a 700 bar Linde refuelling unit installed in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter diesel van that accompanied the cars. Throughout the entire tour, the cars only refuelled twice at existing hydrogen stations. Daimler has highlighted the crux of the automotive fuel cell effort: the chicken and egg conundrum implicit in establishing a refuelling infrastructure and reaching mass commercialisation. Consumers will not be willing to buy a fuel cell vehicle if there are insufficient locations at which to refuel it, and investors will not want to fund the construction of hydrogen stations if there are no cars to drive onto the forecourt.

As fuel cell technologies rapidly begin to reach maturity, the infrastructure issue has come to the forefront, and was the subject of the closing plenary at the Hydrogen + Fuel Cells 2011 Conference that I attended in Vancouver last month. The Linde Group has developed ionic compressors and cryo pumps for high volume refuelling stations, recommended in the plenary by Linde’s Mike Beckham as more financially sound and suffering less depreciation than smaller stations. However, a high throughput of vehicles would be needed to offset the initial capital venture – adding to the chicken and egg conundrum. Hoping to get the ball rolling, Air Products has developed a low-cost (approximately USD $1 million) station with a reduced requirement for compression, the first of which recently opened in South Torrance. It is likely that a steady base of these types of smaller, cheaper stations will need to build up to allow fuel cell vehicles on the road to reach a critical mass, after which point larger stations could be deployed with relative investment security.

With many automakers uniting on a 2015/2016 commercialisation window, the issue of implementing a global hydrogen infrastructure is going to rapidly become more pressing.

Jonathan Wing     Market Analyst



Image: F-CELL vehicles outside the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany (Source: Mercedes-Benz)


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