Hydrogen mobility: A new buzz at the depot

Back-to-base projects in public transport are well-placed to overcome the catch-22 in hydrogen mobility. As a recent example in Cologne shows, Linde technology is crucial in getting hydrogen-powered vehicles and refuelling stations on the ground.

Catch-22 is a frustrating logic best expressed by the despair of John Yossarian, a fictional bombardier during the second world war.

Attempting to escape the insanity of war by claiming to be crazy, Yossarian, a character in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22, asks the army doc to sign him off sick. There is a catch, however, Doc Daneeka explains. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy." The term has since become a standard expression to describe an inescapable dilemma, such as the one hydrogen is faced with.

As Doc Daneeka is unlikely to come to the rescue, Linde is tackling the issue by developing state of the art technology and participating in initiatives like H2 Mobility. Back-to-base projects are an ideal starter for hydrogen mobility and public transport buses are the perfect guinea pigs: They have long, uninterrupted rides and need to operate efficiently, even under adverse conditions such as cold weather. At the end of the shift, they return to their depot where a hydrogen refuelling station can be installed.

Hydrogen-powered buses will shuttle passengers in the greater Cologne area from 2019 on.

Cologne’s transit transition

As is the case in Cologne, Germany. Earlier this year, the city’s public transport operator Regionalverkehr Köln (RVK) commissioned 30 hydrogen powered buses from Belgian manufacturer Van Hool. “We wanted to switch to zero emission vehicles with as little disruption to our operational schedule as possible", explains Jens Conrad, Head of the RVK’s Alternative Drives department, “that meant finding something close to diesel buses in terms of refuelling times, range and flexibility". Aside from the performance parity of the buses, the decision to go with fuel-cells also made particular sense for the Cologne region which is home to a large chemical industry and so has ready access to by-product hydrogen.

The buses will serve Cologne’s greater metropolitan area in 2019, but the venture goes beyond just the procurement of the vehicles. After all, you can’t have back-to-base without the ‘base’. “In this project, we are building two new refuelling stations – with the long-term goal of having one at each of our depots in the region,” explains Conrad. These will be constructed by a consortium consisting of Linde, Framatome, EMS und the research institute Forschungszentrum Jülich – with Linde bringing its technical expertise to the table.

Constant pressure

Linde will install a new hydrogen storage technology, so-called constant pressure tubes. As their name suggests, they maintain pressure, which allows them to make greater use of the available storage space. Constant pressure also does away with the need for pressure buffer storage, a fact that further reduces refuelling time. This is a particular advantage for large vehicles requiring more hydrogen. Each of the RVK fuelling stations has a capacity of 500 kilograms of hydrogen and will refuel 20 buses per day.

Based on decades of research, development and testing, Linde views hydrogen as a strong and – with initial public funding – economically viable alternative for fossil-fuel-powered transportation. The firm therefore supports a shift to hydrogen-based mobility. “With its decision to make large-scale use of hydrogen-powered buses, Regionalverkehr Köln is taking an important step towards a CO2-neutral future and will hopefully encourage other mobility providers to follow its example”, says Jens Waldeck, Linde’s managing director for Central Europe. In fact, starting in the summer of 2019, German cities Wiesbaden, Mainz and Frankfurt / Main will operate eleven hydrogen buses; the vehicles will be refilled at the Linde built refuelling station in Wiesbaden.

Ride-share services like Clevershuttle bring hydrogen power to the tarmac. Eventually, cars might even be able to share filling stations with public buses.

Reality check

One who closely follows the events in Cologne is Thomas Grube. The group leader transport at the Research Center Jülich is keen to analyse the data of refuelling stations once they are operational. Grube and his team develop long-term strategies for the widespread introduction of hydrogen mobility. Yet their models are based on calculations and assumptions. “Observing an actual hydrogen refuelling station and analysing its data day by day allows us to validate and revise our models”, Grube says.

Covering 200 to 250 kilometres per day, a fuel cell bus needs some 16 to 25 kilograms of hydrogen. “Such demand is a lot more predictable than the occasional car passing by to refill a three to six kilogram tank”, Grube says. The constant routine in public transport thus helps to make filling stations profitable. “We then hope to use the Rhine-Ruhr area as prototype of what hydrogen mobility can look like in comparable regions throughout Europe.”

Like Regionalverkehr Köln, Berlin-based start-up Clevershuttle also pursues a back-to-base approach. It uses hydrogen to offer short to medium haul mobility services. With its focus on providing clean-conscience rides, the ride-share service operates 75 fuel-cell and 100 battery-electric vehicles that pick-up customers in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and other German cities. Starting in November 2018, the company operates 10 FCEVs in Frankfurt that used to be part of Linde’s Bee Zero fleet.

“The hydrogen technology has certainly proven itself”, says Clevershuttle’s communication and PR manager, Fabio Adlassnigg. The vehicles are reliable – despite spending 20 hours per day in stop-and-go city traffic. Hydrogen-powered vehicles even have a slight advantage over battery electric cars: “Refuelling them takes some four to five minutes”, Adlassnigg says. “This is significantly faster than even a 20- to 30-minute electric fast charge which can hurt the battery if it is used too often.”

One would have to be crazy not to believe in hydrogen.