Gerlingen, Germany — Hydrogen fuel cells have been a promising alternative powertrain technology for years, but they remain largely a peripheral discussion in the auto industry.
But now the world's largest auto parts supplier, Robert Bosch GmbH, is doubling down on the technology, saying it plans for "large-scale production" of the fuel cell stacks that drive the powertrains.
Bosch said in late April it has created a business unit and a key partnership that will bring an affordable integrated fuel cell system to market by 2022. The company has formed an alliance with PowerCell Sweden AB, a Gothenberg, Sweden-based manufacturer of fuel cell stacks.
The plan is for the partners to jointly produce the critical system component called polymer-electrolyte membranes, and then for Bosch to use its manufacturing resources to industrialize the systems around the world.
Bosch has named Juergen Gerhardt, a 30-year veteran of the supplier's powertrain division, to lead the new unit, Fuel Cell Mobility Solutions, which became operational April 1.
Gerhardt leads a team of 150 people, with about 100 support staff, in Germany and Wuxi, China. An American outpost will be established, Gerhardt, 59, said in an interview.
Bosch did not reveal what automakers it is working with on the plans, but said it is "working on development projects with several customers."
It also declined to say where the new technology will be produced.
The goal is to create an integrated system that incorporates Bosch's fuel cell products, which include sensors, oxygen and hydrogen supply systems and electronic controls, Gerhardt said.
Bosch's strategy is that offering auto makers full modules rather than single components will help lower prices and move the technology into play across the industry, he said.
Each individual cell in a fuel cell stack has a polymer membrane at its center, with power generated as electrons move across the film.
Bosch thinks hydrogen fuel cells could power a fifth of all electric vehicles by 2030, generating a market worth billions of dollars annually.
"We'll be able to bring in our industrialization competence and be able to go into high-volume production," Gerhardt said. "That will bring the cost down significantly."
Fuel cell vehicles combine the emissions-free driving experience of an EV with the ability to refuel quickly. But the promise has not yet panned out, and sales of cars that use the technology remain minuscule. Fuel cells have made inroads in some industrial uses such as forklifts.
Bosch recognizes that it has challenges.
The expense of the fuel cell stack makes up two-thirds of the cost of the entire power system. The price of hydrogen is also a barrier. A kilogram of it, which is the energy equivalent of about three-fourths of a gallon of gasoline, can cost more than $5.50.
Another formidable problem: Hydrogen fueling stations are rare. And some environmentalists are cautious about the safety of hydrogen storage and about the need to use fossil fuels to extract hydrogen.
But reducing the cost of the fuel cell stack comes first.
Under the Bosch-PowerCell agreement, the partners will work with the Swedish company's S3 stack, which can produce about 100 kilowatts of power, an ideal amount for van and passenger car use, Gerhardt said.
The new effort will target commercial vehicles first, a plan dictated by the lack of hydrogen filling stations, he said.
"We do have the chicken-and-egg problem of infrastructure, but this is why our current focus is so much on commercial vehicles," Gerhardt said. "It takes much fewer filling stations to operate a fleet of commercial vehicles."