Fuel cell

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Fuel cell operated with methanol

A fuel cell is a galvanic cell that converts the chemical reaction energy of a continuously supplied fuel and an oxidizing agent into electrical energy . Even though the term fuel cell often means a hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell , depending on the type of fuel cell , many other fuels can be used in addition to hydrogen , in particular methanol , butane or natural gas .

Fuel cells alone are not energy stores , but rather energy converters to which energy is supplied in chemically bound form with the fuels. A complete fuel cell system can, however, contain a fuel store.

Measured in terms of the number of devices installed, the most important applications of the fuel cell are the off-grid power supply and - especially in Japan - the supply of buildings with heat and electricity ( micro-power-heat coupling ). To this end, around 305,000 buildings in Japan had been equipped with fuel cell heating systems by April 2019 and this was subsidized by the state ("ENE-FARM" program). In Germany , up to and including September 2019, over 8,900 applications for KfW funding for fuel cell heating systems were approved.

The second most common use of the fuel cell after the number of devices is the supply of off-grid devices such as measuring stations or electrical devices when camping. For this purpose, direct methanol fuel cells are used , of which one manufacturer said it had sold over 45,000 devices by January 2020.

Third, vehicles run on fuel cells, including more than 20,000 forklifts , pallet trucks and the like, many of them in the USA. The number of fuel cell vehicles increased by around 4,000 in 2018 and ended up being around 11,200 cars and small trucks. The Toyota Mirai alone had produced over 10,000 vehicles by September 2019. In addition, around 200 fuel cell buses were in operation around the world by September 2019 , around 70 in Europe , 40 in China , 18 in Japan and 71 in the USA .

Comparison with heat engines

The generation of electrical energy from chemical energy sources mostly takes place through combustion and use of the hot gases produced in a heat engine with a generator connected downstream . Chemical energy is first converted into thermal energy through combustion and then into mechanical work . Only from this is electricity generated in the generator. However, a fuel cell is able to achieve the conversion without converting it into heat and power and is therefore potentially more efficient. In contrast to an internal combustion engine , it converts chemical energy directly into electrical energy and is not subject to the poor efficiency of internal combustion engines. The theoretically achievable useful work is limited solely by the free enthalpy of the chemical reaction and can therefore be higher than when a heat engine ( Carnot efficiency ) is coupled with a generator to generate electricity. In practice , the efficiency achieved with the combination of fuel cell and electric motor is higher than that of Otto or diesel engines . However, the cost of producing and storing the energy source should also be taken into account in the entire chain of effects .


The principle of the fuel cell was discovered by Christian Friedrich Schönbein in 1838 when he washed two platinum wires in dilute sulfuric acid with hydrogen or oxygen and noticed an electrical voltage between the wires. Sir William Grove , together with Schönbein, recognized the reversal of electrolysis and the generation of electricity through several experiments.

Very soon people were downright enthusiastic about fuel cells. It was hoped to replace coal and steam engines. In 1875 Jules Verne wrote about the fuel cell in his book "The Mysterious Island":

“Water is the coal of the future. The energy of tomorrow is water that has been broken down by electricity. The thus broken down elements of water, hydrogen and oxygen, will secure the energy supply of the earth for the indefinite future. "

Because of Werner von Siemens' invention of the electric generator , then known as the dynamo machine , the invention known as the “galvanic gas battery” was initially forgotten. In connection with the steam engine, the dynamo was relatively simple and uncomplicated in terms of fuel and materials and was therefore preferred to the complex fuel cell at that time. Wilhelm Ostwald made an outstanding contribution to the theoretical penetration of the fuel cell. In 1894 he recognized their high potential compared to heat engines .

It was not until the 1950s that the idea was taken up again, because space travel and the military required compact and powerful energy sources. The fuel cell was first used on board a satellite and for the Gemini and Apollo space capsules from 1963 .

In the 1990s, Californian legislation gave new impetus. Now vehicles with low emissions were required from every manufacturer. Since then, fuel cell development has made great strides internationally, both in research and in application.

Special events

The first prototype of a larger fuel cell powered vehicle was presented by Allis-Chalmers in 1959 with a fuel cell powered tractor. The fuel cell had its first productive use in US space technology in the 1960s. In the Apollo moon missions, it served as a mostly reliable source of energy. But when, on April 11, 1970, the three-man crew of the Apollo 13 missile reached space after a problem-free launch, one of the two oxygen tanks in the service module of the "Odyssey" exploded and damaged the oxygen line of the other oxygen tank, so that all three Fuel cells had to be switched off.


Schematic representation of the function of a PEMFC / DMFC (/ PAFC) fuel cell

A fuel cell consists of electrodes that are separated from one another by an electrolyte (ion conductor). The electrolyte can consist of a semipermeable membrane that is only suitable for one type of ion, e.g. B. protons , is permeable.

The electrode plates / bipolar plates are usually made of metal or carbon , e.g. B. made of a carbon felt. They are coated with a catalyst , for example with platinum or palladium . The electrolyte can be liquid (for example alkalis or acids , alkali carbonate melts ) or solid (for example ceramics or membranes ).

The energy provides a reaction of oxygen with the fuel, which can be hydrogen , but can also consist of organic compounds such as methane or methanol . Both reactants are fed continuously via the electrodes .

The theoretical voltage of a hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell is 1.23  V at a temperature of 25 ° C. In practice, however, only voltages of 0.5–1 V are achieved during operation; voltages above 1 V are obtained only in the idle state or with small currents. The voltage depends on the fuel, the quality of the cell and the temperature. In order to obtain a higher voltage, several cells are connected in series to form a stack . Under load, the chemical and electrical processes cause the voltage to drop (not with the high-temperature molten carbonate fuel cell, MCFC).

The structure of the low-temperature proton exchange membrane fuel cell ( Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell, PEMFC; or Polymer Electrolyte Fuel Cell, PEFC) is as follows:

  1. Bipolar plate as an electrode with a milled gas channel structure, for example made of conductive plastics (made electrically conductive by adding carbon nanotubes, for example);
  2. porous carbon papers;
  3. Reactive layer, usually on the ionomer membrane applied. Here the four phases catalyst (Pt), electron conductor (soot or carbon nanomaterials), proton conductor (ionomer) and porosity are in contact with one another;
  4. Proton-conducting ionomer membrane: gas-tight and not electron-conducting.

Alternatives to storing liquid or gaseous hydrogen

A possible alternative to direct hydrogen storage in pressure tanks or cryotanks are metal hydrides or other chemical hydrogen storage systems . In the latter, the hydrogen is obtained from fuels such as methanol or from suitable hydrocarbons such as dibenzyltoluene by catalytic processes and / or heating shortly before use . Some of these methods, e.g. B. the steam reforming , but contribute to a not inconsiderable extent to environmental pollution through CO 2 emissions, which limits the otherwise relatively good environmental compatibility of the fuel cell. Ethanol and methanol can also be synthesized from water and carbon dioxide, but the overall process including the isolation of carbon dioxide can be energy-intensive. The economic viability of these processes depends on the catalysts, the best variants of which contain the expensive platinum . A widespread use of platinum catalysts would also lead to a further shortage and increase in the price of platinum.

Fuel cell types

Important fuel cell types

The most important fuel cell types up to 2018 are:

Different types of fuel cells
designation electrolyte Mobile
Fuel (anode) Cathode gas Power ( kW ) Temperature ( ° C ) el. efficiency
Alkaline fuel cell (AFC) Potassium hydroxide OH - H 2 (hydrogen) O 2 (oxygen , CO 2 -free) 10-100 150-220 40-60
Polymer electrolyte
fuel cell
Polymer -
H 3 O + H 2 O 2 0.1-500 10-100 35-60
Direct methanol
fuel cell
H 3 O + CH 3 OH (methanol) O 2 <0.001-100 60-130 40
Phosphoric acid
fuel cell
phosphoric acid H 3 O + H 2 O 2 <10 110-220 38-40
Molten Carbonate
Fuel Cell
Alkali - carbonate -
CO 3 2− H 2 , CH 4 , coal gas O 2 100 550-700 48-70
Solid oxide
fuel cell
oxide ceramic
O 2− H 2 , CH 4 , coal gas O 2 (air) <100 450-1000 47-70

Other types of fuel cells in research

Alternative fuels

In theory, almost all fuels can also be used in fuel cells. There have been attempts to do this primarily with various alcohols , in particular with the alcohols ethanol ( direct ethanol fuel cell ), propanol , and glycerine, as these are significantly less toxic than the methanol mentioned above. Experiments have also been made with aldehydes (namely formaldehyde , including paraformaldehyde ), ketones and various hydrocarbons , as well as with diethyl ether and ethylene glycol . The use of formic acid (methanoic acid) in formic acid fuel cells has also been well researched and developed . With glucose in the form of the body's blood sugar -powered fuel cells, medical implants could provide power, see bio-fuel cell .

The use of carbon - in contrast to the solid, liquid or dissolved fuels discussed so far, an insoluble solid - in fuel cells is possible and is being intensively researched, see carbon fuel cells . The use of coal or coke as the primary energy source would be advantageous because of its ready availability, but practical implementation has proven difficult.

Carbon-free compounds, especially ammonia ( ammonia fuel cell ) or hydrazine ( hydrazine fuel cell ), but also sodium borohydride , can be used as energy suppliers for fuel cells.

Alternative oxidizing agents

Practically all fuel cells use oxygen or air as an oxidizing agent. For special applications, e.g. B. for military purposes, oxidizing agents such as hydrogen peroxide or nitric acid could be used instead of oxygen . There were also experiments with halogens , especially with chlorine. With the alternative oxidizing agents mentioned, particularly high voltages are possible per cell.

Reversible fuel cell

With the reversible fuel cell (en. Reversible or regenerative fuel cell, RFC ) the process of electricity generation is reversed in such a way that the fuel is recovered by an externally imposed electricity. In the simple case, it consists of a hydrogen fuel cell that can also be operated as an electrolyzer . If the fuel cell and electrolysis process can run in one cell, weight is saved and complexity is reduced. A combination of reversible fuel cell and fuel tank is therefore suitable as an energy store and as a replacement for accumulator systems.

Chemical reaction

The overall reaction of a fuel cell corresponds to the combustion reaction of the fuel. This is why the conversion in a fuel cell is also called “cold combustion”, whereby electrical energy is obtained directly (i.e. without detour via thermal energy).

Hydrogen-Oxygen Fuel Cell

The principle of the fuel cell is based on the following reaction equation:

Many types of fuel cells can use this reaction to generate electrical energy. The most important type of fuel cell for many applications today is the proton exchange membrane fuel cell ( PEMFC ). Such a fuel cell usually uses hydrogen (which can be generated from methanol or methane by means of steam reforming ) as an energy carrier and achieves an efficiency of around 60%. The core of the PEMFC is a polymer membrane that is only permeable to protons (i.e. only to H + ions), the so-called proton exchange membrane (PEM). The oxidizing agent , usually atmospheric oxygen, is spatially separated from the reducing agent .

The fuel, in this case hydrogen , is catalytically oxidized at the anode , releasing electrons into protons . These pass through the ion exchange membrane into the chamber with the oxidizing agent. The electrons are diverted from the fuel cell and flow to the cathode via an electrical consumer, for example an incandescent lamp . At the cathode, the oxidizing agent , here oxygen , is reduced to anions by absorbing the electrons , which react directly with the hydrogen ions to form water .

Fuel cells with such a structure are called polyelectrolyte fuel cells, PEFC (for Polymer Electrolyte Fuel Cell ) or proton exchange membrane fuel cells, PEMFC (for Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell ). The membranes used are acidic electrolytes.

Schema fuel cell.svg

Redox reaction equations for a PEMFC:

Acid electrolyte equation
Oxidation / electron donation
Reduction / electron uptake
Overall response
Redox reaction / cell reaction

There are also alkaline hydrogen fuel cells. However, they only work with high-purity hydrogen and oxygen. In them, the gases are introduced into a basic solution through porous, catalytically active electrodes.

Scheme of a basic hydrogen fuel cell

The redox reactions taking place there are:

Basic electrolyte equation
Anode (minus pole)
Oxidation / electron donation
Cathode (positive pole)
Reduction / electron uptake
Overall response
Redox reaction / cell reaction

Other fuel cells

See for the reaction equations of direct methanol fuel cells here , for the direct ethanol fuel cell here .

Electrical efficiency, costs, service life

At the Institute for Energy Research at Forschungszentrum Jülich , the following test results were achieved for fuel cell systems in 2003:

Type Operating parameters power El. Efficiency CHP operational readiness costs
Polymer electrolyte fuel cell (PEFC) 70 ° C, polymer electrolyte 250 kW 35% Field test (series since 2009) <€ 10,000 / kW
Phosphoric acid fuel cell (PAFC) 250 ° C 200 kW 38% series > € 5,000 / kW
Molten Carbonate Fuel Cell (MCFC) 650 ° C, stationary use 280 kW 48% Field test <8,000 € / kW
Solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) 900 ° C, stationary use 100 kW 47% Field test € 20,000 / kW
Reversible Solid Oxide Cell (rSOC) 800 ° C, stationary use 5 kW 62% Laboratory operation open

Costs and efficiency of the overall system are also dependent on the ancillary units, in a fuel cell vehicle z. B. from the traction battery , the electric drive and the effort to provide the fuel cell fuel. For comparison, comprehensive considerations of the active chains are therefore carried out, in the case of motor vehicles on the well-to-wheel basis .

Various conventional techniques for generating mechanical energy have the following efficiencies and costs:

Type power Efficiency costs
Combined heat and power 1 up to 100 kW 34% (el.) 1 1000 € / kW
Combined heat and power 1 from 1000 kW 41% (el.) 1 <500 € / kW
City bus ( diesel engine ) 300 kW 45-50% <€ 275 / kW
Truck , coach (diesel engine) 500 kW 45-50% <100 € / kW
Car ( gasoline engine ) 100 kW 35-38% € 50 / kW
Gas turbines 1 kW - 300 MW 25-46% € 2200 / kW
1Most of the waste heat is also used here and the overall efficiency can reach up to 90%.

The service life of a PAFC fuel cell is between 40,000 operating hours for stationary and 5,000 operating hours for mobile systems (40,000 operating hours correspond to 1666 continuous operating days or 4.6 continuous operating years). The service life of a solid oxide SOFC fuel cell is currently limited to a few months with manufacturing costs in the order of 100,000 francs (62,000 euros) (as of March 13, 2006).

To increase their efficiency, high-temperature fuel cells can be coupled with a micro gas turbine , so that combined they achieve efficiencies of over 60%.


The first applications of fuel cells were in areas such as the military and aerospace , where costs played a minor role and the specific benefits outweighed the cost benefits of diesel generators. Fuel cells are lighter than accumulators and more reliable and quieter than generators . The low noise emissions and the ability to operate fuel cells reliably after a very long period of inactivity contributed to their use in military applications and in emergency power supplies . In addition, in combination with an electric motor , fuel cells can generate kinetic energy more efficiently than combustion engines in various areas of application , for example because of the constant torque curve or the better controllability of the former.

One of the strengths of fuel cell systems is their high energy density compared to other converter technologies, which explains the early interest of the military and space travel in this technology.

Around 62,000 fuel cell systems were sold worldwide in 2016. Most of them, namely over 50,000, were used for stationary applications. The total output of all systems sold in 2016 is estimated at 0.5 GW, of which more than half were sold to Asia. The total output of the systems sold in 2015 was significantly lower at around 0.3 GW.

Stationary use

Vitovalor 300-P heating system from Viessmann with Panasonic fuel cell for combined electricity and heat generation

For stationary systems for electricity-generating heating

The stationary field of application of a fuel cell system extends over a wide power range, starting with small systems with an output of two to five kilowatts of electrical power - for example as house energy supply - up to systems in the low megawatt range. Larger systems are used in hospitals, swimming pools or for the supply of small communities. As of September 2016, Europe's largest fuel cell power plant had an output of 1.4 MW.

An electricity-generating fuel cell-based HyO heating system ("Hy" = Hydrogenium = hydrogen and "O" = Oxygenium = oxygen; mini block-type thermal power station = mini-CHP) consists of several components. In the ideal case of purchasing hydrogen - generated as climate-neutral as possible - a PEM-FC (polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell) that can be produced with little effort is used. As long as there is no (bio) hydrogen available as fuel, but instead fossil or biogenic methane (natural gas or even “bio natural gas”), a complex and failure-prone reformer unit is required. This converts the methane into hydrogen for direct operation of the fuel cell-based HyO system and into CO 2 as exhaust gas. The second component is the fuel cell (FC), which is used for the chemical process (oxidation of the supplied hydrogen) with the consequence of generating electricity and heat oxygen from the ambient air. In addition, there are the electrical power electronics and the associated control of operational management. Additional conventional natural gas-operated heat generators are usually installed to cover thermal load peaks.

All types of fuel cells can be used for stationary applications. Current developments are limited to the SOFC , the MCFC and the PEMFC . The SOFC and MCFC have the advantage that - due to the high temperatures - natural gas can be used directly as fuel gas. The extraction of hydrogen (H 2 ) from the methane (CH 4 ) of the gas pipeline network (“reforming process”) takes place within the high-temperature fuel cell (HT-FC), which makes a separate reformer superfluous when using methane. The PEM fuel cell operating in the low temperature range, on the other hand, requires a separate reformer unit with an elaborate gas cleaning stage when using methane to generate hydrogen, because the reformate has to be largely freed from carbon monoxide (CO). CO is produced every time hydrocarbons are reformed. In this type of fuel cell, CO is a catalyst poison and would significantly reduce both the performance and the service life of the fuel cell.

When operating the high-temperature cells SOFC and MCFC, the hot exhaust air can be used to sterilize objects. They are unsuitable as emergency power generators because of the longer start-up phase. A low-temperature PEMFC system, on the other hand, can start up automatically within fractions of a second if there is a sudden need for emergency power.

Operating mode

In the case of stationary fuel cell applications, the focus is currently on heat production compared to electricity production. These systems are therefore mostly operated based on heat demand. This means that the system output is regulated according to the required amount of heat, with the electricity generated being fed into the public power grid. Stationary FC systems are best operated with a low power modulation. Ideally, the basic heat load requirement is completely covered by the fuel cell CHP unit. (Heat) load peaks are covered by conventional heating devices. In this way, the stationary FC system works with only one constant load point. This means that the system can be designed for maximum efficiency. As a first approximation, the service life of a fuel cell is determined by the number of start-stop cycles, as these have the most unfavorable effect on the catalytic converters inside.

For a PEM fuel cell with a closed cathode, when it is switched off it should be sealed on both sides - i.e. also on the oxygen side. This simplifies a new start, as the moisture required for operation is retained and no harmful gases can accumulate. If storage is to take place at temperatures below freezing point, the fuel cell must be completely dried out in order to prevent damage from ice formation.

Mobile use

Forklifts and other industrial trucks

Forklift trucks , motorized lift trucks and other industrial trucks are often used in warehouses or factories, and therefore indoors, where internal combustion engines powered by petrol or diesel may not be used. Therefore, they are often electrically powered , mostly with an accumulator as energy storage. If the forklifts are only in use during the day, the nightly rest period is long enough to charge their batteries. However , if forklift trucks are to be used in shifts around the clock or at least with limited breaks, battery-based systems require a loading area with replaceable batteries. In such cases, forklifts and lift trucks operated with fuel cells are increasingly being used, as these can be refueled with hydrogen in a few minutes and are thus available almost continuously with less operating expense and less space. This trend is particularly widespread in the USA, where the introduction of fuel cells has been subsidized by the government, e.g. B. with tax credits, accelerated depreciation or subsidies. Therefore, an increasing number of industrial trucks are operated with fuel cells in the USA: In June 2011 more than 1500 forklift trucks were equipped with them in the USA, in October 2013 more than 4000, in December 2014 (including ordered devices) more than 8200, in December 2015 more than 7,500 (including 2,800 at Walmart alone ), more than 11,000 in November 2016 and more than 16,500 in April 2017 (including those that have already been ordered). In Europe there are still a few, e.g. B. In August 2016, 140 devices were in fleet use in Europe. More than 20,000 industrial trucks around the world are equipped with fuel cells. The logistics industry is therefore an important market for fuel cells, even if the market share, measured in terms of the annual sales of forklifts, which exceeds one million devices, is still small. Due to the investment costs for a hydrogen filling station (gas tanks, lines, tapping point), a hydrogen-powered forklift fleet only pays for itself from a size of 50 vehicles. In August 2016, fuel fleets in North America were an average of 130 vehicles.

Road traffic

As of July 2019, over 7,000 fuel cell cars had been sold in the United States alone, while the fuel cell vehicle inventory in Japan at that time was over 3,200. In June 2019, only 386 fuel cell cars were registered in Germany.

In addition to the Toyota Mira i with over 7,000 units sold by March 2019, Hyundai alone sold over 500 Hyundai ix35 FCEVs and a total of over 600 Hyundai Nexos in the European market .

In 2017, over 3,300 passenger cars with hydrogen fuel cell drive were sold worldwide: over 2,600 Toyota Mirai , over 500 Honda Clarity FCEV and almost 200 Hyundai ix35 / Tucson FCEV. In 2018, over 2,300 hydrogen cars were sold in the US, including 1,700 Toyota Mirai and over 600 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell. A growing number of fuel cell vehicles (cars and buses) are being produced in China : 629 units in 2016/2017, 1527 in 2018, and 1170 in the first half of 2019.

A trigger for considerable efforts in the research and development of fuel cells was the Zero Emission Act or the Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate (ZEV) in the USA, which stipulated that cars should in future be emission- free. In 2003, it was planned that 10% of all newly registered vehicles in California would be subject to this law. Shortly before that, after massive pressure from the American automotive industry, the ZEV was overturned, although it is still being discussed.

The increased use of emission-free vehicles in metropolitan areas and large cities is expected to improve the air quality there. A side effect, however, would be that emissions would be shifted from where the vehicle is used to where the hydrogen is produced, unless this is done using climate-neutral processes. There are several options for producing hydrogen with different levels of efficiency.

For the widespread use of mobile hydrogen applications, the simultaneous construction of hydrogen filling stations is necessary; 376 of them were in operation worldwide at the end of 2018. Nowadays, practically only pressure vessels are used to carry hydrogen in vehicles. Forms of hydrogen storage are also possible, for example in metal hydrides or at a lower temperature than liquid hydrogen. In the overall assessment of energy efficiency, the high energy requirement for compression (up to 700 bar) or liquefaction (around −250 ° C) must be taken into account, which significantly reduces the overall efficiency ( well-to-wheel ) of vehicles with hydrogen storage.

Despite the high efficiency of the fuel cell, the dissipation of waste heat at the comparatively low temperature level of the PEM fuel cell of around 80 ° C is also problematic, because in contrast to the internal combustion engine, the relatively cold exhaust gas (water vapor) only contains a comparatively small amount of heat. Accordingly, efforts are being made to raise the operating temperature of the PEM fuel cell to over 100 ° C. in order to be able to produce more powerful fuel cell automobiles with more than 100 kW.

At temperatures below freezing point, the ability of the fuel cell to start could be impaired due to freezing water. It must be ensured that the electrochemical reaction, in particular the diffusion of the fuel gases, is not hindered by ice formation. This can be achieved, for example, by means of a suitable electrode structure. In practice, neither cold nor heat are a problem for fuel cell cars.

Vehicle development

In Stuttgart , hydrogen- powered buses are tested in normal line operation. Such a test ran in Hamburg from 2010 to the end of 2018. The Belgian commercial vehicle manufacturer Van Hool had already delivered 53 hydrogen buses by March 2018 (32 in Europe, 21 in North America). 40 more have been ordered for 2019. They are to be powered by 85 kW Ballard fuel cells.

Since June 16, 2008, Honda has been delivering the FCX Clarity car to a limited extent , which is operated exclusively with fuel cell technology. Hybrid bicycles and motorcycles with fuel cell drives have also been around since 2007.

Hydrogen-powered prototypes of electric vehicles from Hyundai or Toyota presented in 2017 have ranges of up to 800 km.

The automaker Ford announced on June 24, 2009 that it would stop working on fuel cells. Instead, Ford prefers to use batteries. In December 2010, however, Ford announced that internal work on the fuel cell would continue. Ford is involved in a joint venture (Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation Corp .; AFCC for short) with Daimler AG. Fuel cells and stacks are manufactured for this purpose in Toronto (Canada). The development takes place mainly at the Daimler subsidiary NuCellSys GmbH in Kirchheim unter Teck / Nabern.

The vehicle manufacturers Toyota , Nissan , Mercedes-Benz and Honda have now significantly reduced the production costs for hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Daimler (Mercedes-Benz) is the only vehicle manufacturer that has its own complete production plant for stacks and fuel cells and, contrary to the original plan, moved the series production of fuel cell vehicles forward by one year to 2014, and by October 2015 delivered a total of around 70 fuel cell vehicles in Germany, Asia and mainly to California. It was the first fuel cell vehicle to be built and delivered in a series. The price was stated to be around 20-30% higher than that of a vehicle with an internal combustion engine. In order to demonstrate the suitability for everyday use of the hydrogen drive and the infrastructure, Mercedes-Benz (Daimler AG) has successfully completed a circumnavigation of the world with several B-Class fuel cell vehicles. 200 series vehicles of this type were delivered to customers in 2010. A filling station network that has been in operation in the state of California since then supports everyday suitability by ensuring a minimal infrastructure. Even after several years, the test showed a very high level of user satisfaction and reliability of the vehicles.

Mercedes-Benz launched the GLC F-Cell in November 2018 . This is the first time to a combination of a large lithium-ion battery (9.3 kWh) with a fuel cell, the combination and therefore also as a fuel-cell plug-in - hybrid is referred to. With a 155 kW electric motor and a top speed limited to 160 km / h, the vehicle has a range of 430 km in the NEDC cycle with the hydrogen supply (with refueling times of 3 minutes) plus 50 km from the battery. Due to the novelty of the technology and the lack of a network of hydrogen filling stations, the vehicle will initially only be offered by a few major city dealers on the basis of a full-service rental model.

With the Toyota Mirai , one of the first new generation of series fuel cell vehicles was presented in December 2014; Since September 2015 it has also been delivered in Germany. The electric motor has an output of 114 kW and the top speed is 178 km / h. The hydrogen is stored in two separate tanks that each hold 2.5 kg of hydrogen at 700 bar and, according to the manufacturer, allow a range of 500 km.

Opel wanted to start series production of the first models with fuel cell drives from 2015 and push ahead with the development of a comprehensive infrastructure for hydrogen filling stations parallel to the market launch. However, it was not delivered. After the separation of GM and Opel in 2017, a competence center for the development of fuel cells for the entire Groupe PSA was established in Rüsselsheim in 2018.

BMW and Volkswagen repeatedly announced tests, but the demonstrators remained test vehicles and prototypes. While BMW is evaluating a fuel cell for the iNext at the earliest (from approx. 2025), VW sees this as more urgent and plans to use it primarily in larger vehicles and the upper middle class and luxury class. BMW is currently planning to use fuel cells in small series from around 2021 at the earliest, and series production from 2025 if necessary. At VW, the development of the fuel cell takes place primarily at Audi .


Since mid-2005, fuel cells have also been used in aviation. The first drone with electric motors powered by a fuel cell took off in Yuma , Arizona . The DLR worked on the integration of fuel cell technology in the unmanned research aircraft HyFish , the successful near Bern made its maiden flight in March of 2007.

Research activities in aviation are also ongoing elsewhere. At the beginning of 2008, a converted Airbus A320 with a fuel cell as a backup system for the energy supply on board was tested in a test flight . As a positive side effect, the water produced can be used for on-board supplies, which lowers the take-off weight.

On March 3, 2008, Boeing operated a small aircraft for the first time, a Dimona from Diamond Aircraft , with a hybrid drive: an electric motor with lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells. After the ascent with both energy sources to an altitude of 1000 meters, the accumulator was disconnected and the pilot flew the first 20 minutes of the flight history with fuel cells. The drive was developed by Boeing Research & Technology Europe (BR&TE) in Madrid with European industrial partners.

A Lange Antares 20E from DLR , in which the electrical energy is generated using hydrogen via a fuel cell

The first (public) full flight (take-off - traffic pattern - landing) of a pilot-controlled aircraft powered exclusively by energy from fuel cells took place on July 7, 2009 in Hamburg. The aircraft was the Antares DLR-H2 motor glider , with a wingspan of 20 meters, that was produced by the German Aerospace Center ( DLR ) and the project partners Lange Aviation , BASF Fuel Cells and Serenergy (Denmark) and in close cooperation with Airbus was designed and manufactured in 15 months.

Space travel

Fuel cells have long been used as energy converters in space travel ( Gemini , Apollo , Space Shuttle ).

The American space shuttles used fuel cells with a maximum continuous output of 3 × 7 kW to power the orbiter. The water produced by the fuel cells could be used in the life support system.


Fuel cell boat Hydra

The world's first fuel cell passenger boat was the Hydra , which was powered by a hydrogen-powered alkaline fuel cell (AFC). It could carry 22 passengers and drove in 1999/2000, including on the Rhine near Bonn. It has not been in operation since 2001, but it still exists and has proven for the first time that it is technologically possible to propel a passenger ship with fuel cells.

The Nemo H2 tour boat has been in service in Amsterdam since 2009 . It has two polymer electrolyte fuel cells with a total output of 80 kW.

Submarine class 212 A

In the case of submarines , Germany is the only supplier of a series-produced model with additional fuel cell propulsion. In cooperation with Siemens and Nordseewerke Emden, TKMS has been delivering the submarine class 212 A with such a drive (AIP: air independent propulsion ) since 2005 . It has an output of around 300  kW and allows crawling without the 1050 kW diesel generator. The submarine class 214 (from the same manufacturer) also has fuel cells on board. The Spanish S-80 class , which also has an outside air-independent fuel cell drive, is currently under construction . The first unit is scheduled to go into service in 2022.

At the end of 2009, a molten carbonate fuel cell (MCFC) with 320 kW was installed on the Norwegian oil rig supplier Viking Lady to supply electrical energy to the on-board network in order to gain experience in ship operation.

In 2017 the catamaran Energy Observer started a world tour with solar energy, which also uses a 22 k W fuel cell.

Rail transport

The French rail manufacturer Alstom announced on September 24, 2014 at the Innotrans in Berlin that, from 2018, Coradia trains with fuel cell drives will initially be tested in Lower Saxony and later used in Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg. The contracts for the delivery of 14 fuel cell trains and for their 30-year maintenance and energy supply were signed on November 9, 2017. Two of the trains started pilot operations in the EVB network between Cuxhaven , Bremerhaven , Bremervörde and Buxtehude in September 2018 . On April 13, 2018, a Coradia iLint fuel cell train set off on a demonstration drive in Hesse.

In July 2019, Alstom drew a positive balance after driving more than 100,000 kilometers and announced that it would operate a total of 14 fuel cell trains by 2021.

Failed attempts to launch mobile electronics or electrical appliances

In the course of the increasing worldwide spread of mobile electronics (including cell phones , personal digital assistants , smartphones and tablet computers ), the longest possible battery life plays an important role. However, this is limited to a few hours or days, depending on the degree of use. Frequent travelers in particular are often forced to charge their device in between. To reduce dependency on the power outlet, various small, portable fuel cell systems and their associated fuel cartridges have been developed. Either hydrogen or butane or methanol were used as fuel. Although many companies had demonstrated working prototypes and announced an imminent market launch, these systems rarely came onto the market or soon disappeared again. B. in the direct methanol fuel cells . The main reason for this can be seen in the rapid drop in the price of lithium-ion batteries : compared to a power bank equipped with them , fuel cells are significantly more expensive.

For example, the company Lilliputian Systems developed portable fuel cells that can be used to charge smartphones several times while on the move and without using an electrical outlet. The market launch was planned for 2012. The portable fuel cells have a USB connection and a tank with butane gas , which supplies the necessary energy. In July 2014, the company reported from Wilmington , Massachusetts , insolvency on.

The company Intelligent Energy since the beginning of 2015 offered a hydrogen fuel cell called Upp on for charging smartphones. With a hydrogen cartridge, three to five charging processes of an iPhone 6 should be possible until the cartridge has to be changed or refilled by the manufacturer. In 2017 the company was sold with reference to hardly any values.

The company eZelleron wanted to use the fuel cell power plant to provide energy on the basis of butane gas for charging a smartphone eleven times . The market launch via crowdfunding was planned for the beginning of 2016 and was only postponed to January 2017, then to August 2017. Further delays were reported in late 2017 and litigation began in March 2018 on allegations of bankruptcy.

The Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) led from spring 2014 tentatively in the rolling minibars hydrogen-powered fuel cells to the move enough energy supply for the built-in espresso machine to have. The usual accumulators used up to now would have been too heavy for this energy-consuming task. Twelve of them were put into operation, but were stopped again in 2016. The attempt had failed.

See also


  • Peter Kurzweil: Fuel cell technology. Vieweg, Wiesbaden 2003, ISBN 3-528-03965-5 ; 2nd expanded and updated edition: Springer Vieweg, Wiesbaden 2013, ISBN 978-3-658-00084-4 .
  • Sven Geitmann: Hydrogen & Fuel Cells - The Technology of Tomorrow. 2nd edition, Hydrogeit Verlag, Kremmen 2004, ISBN 3-937863-04-4 .
  • Krewitt, Pehnt, Fischedick, Temming: Fuel cells in combined heat and power - life cycle assessments, scenarios, market potential. Erich Schmidt Verlag, Berlin 2004, ISBN 3-503-07870-3 .
  • CMT - Center of Maritime Technologies e. V .: Future energy supply and mobility. In: Ship & Harbor. Issue 9/2009, pp. 72-73, Seehafen-Verlag, Hamburg, ISSN  0938-1643
  • US Dept. of Energy, Office of Fossil Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory: Fuel Cell Handbook, Sixth Edition. EG&G Technical Services Inc., Science Applications International Corp., Under Contract No. DE-AM26-99FT40575, Morgantown, W. Virginia, November 2002.
  • Peter Gerigk, Detlef Bruhn, Dietmar Danner, Leonhard Endruschat, Jürgen Göbert, Heinrich Gross, Dietrich Kruse, Christian Rasmussen, Rainer Schopf: Motor vehicle technology. 5th edition, Westermann Verlag, Braunschweig 1997, ISBN 3-14-231800-3 .
  • How does this work? - technology today. Meyers Lexikonverlag, Mannheim 1998, ISBN 3-411-08854-0 .

Web links

Commons : Fuel Cell  - album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Fuel cell  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

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