MAN Truck & Bus

Hydrogen meets truck – MAN is building initial prototypes

Clear water and powerful energy emerge when hydrogen and oxygen react in a fuel cell. A drive combination involving an e-truck and hydrogen fuel cell could deliver the potential solution to emission-free transport in long-distance traffic. MAN is conducting research into this, so that it can continue building eco-friendly, innovative trucks in the future. The initial prototypes will be released onto the test track in summer 2021. A visit to the technology’s developers in Nuremberg.

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Caution, high voltage The reaction of hydrogen and oxygen in a fuel cell generates a current that drives an electric motor. Fuel cell trucks will be equipped with signal orange high-voltage cables. MAN experts Michael Bernath (left) and Andreas Bug examine a fuel cell on the test bench.  

A fuel cell is erected on the test bench. Pipes supply it with hydrogen and air. The reaction in the cell’s core unleashes electrical energy that is fed to the electric motor via bright orange high-voltage cables. Exactly how the first hydrogen trucks from MAN will soon be powered. But there’s also a lot more happening here in the powertrain engineering building in Nuremberg. Sensors are capturing important data from the fuel cell system: temperature, pressure, current voltage, efficiency. The developers are measuring to determine which fuel cell will ultimately be best suited to propelling heavy trucks over long distances: in a manner that is eco-friendly, efficient and suitable for everyday use. The only “waste product” that arises from operating the fuel cell is clear water. Hydrogen plus oxygen. It doesn’t come any cleaner than that.   

“MAN sees hydrogen as an interesting addition”, says Dr Michael Bernath. “An incredible amount has happened in this technology over recent years. Many major suppliers now offer components for hydrogen fuel cells or entire systems. We are testing them to be well prepared for a possible realization of hydrogen trucks.” Bernath heads a team that is working intently on this alternative drive. MAN intends to release two prototype hydrogen trucks installed with different fuel cells onto the roads as early as summer 2021. Test drivers at MAN will drive these trucks over thousands of kilometres to collate findings relating to the fine tuning of this eco-friendly drive. The next step would then be to develop a demo fleet by around 2024 to enable transport companies to conduct testing in real deployment. This is what the zero emission roadmap envisages.  

A FULL TANK IS SUFFICIENT FOR 800 KILOMETRES

“Our customers frequently ask us about hydrogen trucks. There’s huge interest in this technology. It can be a fantastic addition”, Michael Bernath explains. “What transport companies have lacked so far is emission-free trucks that enjoy sufficient range for deployment in long-distance traffic. This is exactly where hydrogen fuel cells present an interesting solution.”

From our current perspective, hydrogen mobility offers two major advantages over battery-electric mobility for heavy commercial vehicles: fuel cell trucks with a full tank of hydrogen can cover a distance of around 800 kilometres. Advances in battery technology will certainly make it possible to increase the range for e-trucks over the coming years. The greater space required to install the batteries will however make it difficult to approach that of a hydrogen truck. Another factor is that it only takes a few minutes to replenish an empty hydrogen tank. Charging a battery conversely takes three quarters of an hour to several hours depending on the charging current. This can in particular be challenging in long-distance traffic if nationwide charging infrastructure has not yet been established. And yet these two sustainable technologies do have one thing in common – in both cases the vehicle is powered by electricity that drives an electric motor. A high-voltage battery is also installed in a fuel cell vehicle to store the energy from the fuel cell. Depending on the charging or refuelling options, MAN will develop electrically powered vehicles to offer its customers the ideal solution. MAN sees the hydrogen fuel cell as complementary technology to battery-powered drives. “We’ll be relying on both these sustainable drive systems. Our aim is to provide our customers with matching zero-emission solutions for all their truck, bus and van applications”, says division head Michael Bernath.

CLEAN ENERGY FOR MANY SECTORS

Hydrogen mobility in particular however faces major challenges. “Even the best hydrogen vehicle is no use to our customers if there isn’t any infrastructure installed to enable users to refuel with hydrogen at affordable prices”, Andreas Bug who is responsible for the appropriate strategy explains. His team’s tasks in particular include getting to grips with this complex infrastructure issue. There are now a number of hydrogen refuelling stations in Europe, though these are unfortunately only of limited suitability regarding the refuelling of commercial vehicles for long-distance traffic, given that the technology is supposed to exploit the advantage of their high range. That is why Bug is holding talks with many representatives from different business and technology sectors to explore synergies between them and to establish joint projects. He is for instance talking with international energy companies intending to intensify production of more sustainable energy sources, such as hydrogen. Or with regional electricity suppliers who want to produce and market green hydrogen with their surplus from solar and wind energy. Bug is also seeking to make contact with start-ups that have innovative ideas regarding hydrogen. All of the partners with whom this MAN-strategist is connected are pursuing the goal of using hydrogen as an emission-free and cost-effective energy source for society at large. Not only for mobility, but also for industry and building services engineering for instance. The more people are making joint efforts to expand our hydrogen infrastructure nationwide, the sooner transport companies and carriers will benefit from this in their energy transformation. MAN is involved in cooperation projects for this. “We should not only be in a position to provide our customers with the hydrogen vehicles, but also need to demonstrate holistic solutions so that they can make the best use of this technology in relation to their applications,” says Andreas Bug. That is why he is already talking to customers about how hydrogen vehicles can best be integrated into their fleet logistics. He is feeding the findings back to the team of engineers around Michael Bernath. They are being used, for example, in the development of suitable tank systems, battery components and vehicle architectures.

GREAT PROGRESS TO BE EXPECTED 

Another open question is how hydrogen will be delivered to the refuelling stations as easily and cost-effectively as possible in the future. MAN expert Andreas Bug is confident that this challenge can be solved. “There’s a well-developed gas network in Germany, which can also carry high-concentration hydrogen. For onward transport, however, it needs to be highly compressed or frozen to attain high energy density. This makes such transport more expensive, so the refuelling stations would have to be as close to the pipelines as possible. Or we find completely new cost-effective solutions for distributing hydrogen over large distances.”

Hydrogen: View of a glass with blue water

Milestones


Meanwhile, the search for the perfect fuel cell continues in the MAN powertrain engineering building in Nuremberg. A whirring can be heard on the test bench as staff in the test bench control room observe the measured values and identifiers on their monitors. “In contrast to a battery drive, the fuel cell does emit some noise during operation,” Michael Bernath says. “But it runs quieter than an internal combustion engine.” This is another plus for the environment. MAN acted jointly with Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU) and Nuremberg University of Applied Sciences (THN) to co-found this hydrogen campus with the aim of investigating hydrogen technology both in greater depth and more quickly. FAU focuses on basic research, while THN contributes its strengths in application-related research. MAN puts the joint know-how into practice. Drive expert Michael Bernath is convinced that fuel cell technology will have made further great progress when MAN releases the hydrogen demo fleet on the roads by 2024 at the latest. “We want above all to increase the service life of fuel cells to at least 30,000 operating hours, so that their use in commercial vehicles is cost-effective,” he says.

MAN IS ALSO TESTING HYDROGEN COMBUSTION ENGINES

It should however be noted that MAN is not just relying on hydrogen for use in fuel cells. Hydrogen internal combustion engines are also being tested in Nuremberg. One truck prototype with this drive system will even be released onto the test track in 2021. One advantage of a hydrogen combustion engine is that such vehicles could be brought into series production relatively quickly, since they’re based on established technology, says Bernath. In the long term, however, he considers the complementary technologies based on a hydrogen fuel cell and electric battery to provide the more promising solutions for most commercial vehicle applications. MAN is nevertheless approaching all conceivable sustainable drives with an open mind in relation to technology.

Michael Bernath considers the development of MAN’s first hydrogen fuel cell trucks to be a dream come true. He first had direct contact with fuel cells at the beginning of the 2000s – then as an intern at MAN. Now in 2021, Bernath is the chief engineer releasing the first prototypes onto the streets. This can certainly be described as a highlight in his professional career. Andreas Bug, the powertrain engineering strategist, is fully aware that he is actively involved in shaping a mobility transformation of historic proportions. He says: “The inventors at the end of 19th and beginning of the 20th century must have had a similar feeling. At that time it was fossil fuels that were being used to set the course for modern mobility. We are now at a similar turning point with the advent of electric and hydrogen mobility. It’s exhilarating to be able to witness that.”

Text   Felix Enzian
Photos   Dirk Bruniecki

#AlternativeDrives#Sustainability##LongDistanceTransport
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