A glass cabinet filled with the future

Research is being carried out on the University Campus in Tuttlingen into how fuel cells can be made more cost-effective

A large "glass cabinet" full of technology is currently being set up at the Innovation and Research Center (IFC) in Tuttlingen. The new test stand for fuel cells will make it possible for Furtwangen University to carry out research in a particularly promising field of engineering – the generation of energy from hydrogen.

Research on the periphery

It's a tangle of lines, valves, pumps, and cables, "... and right in there, that's what it's all about – the fuel cell," says Professor Dr Frank Allmendinger, who is coordinating the construction of the test stand in Tuttlingen along with partner companies from industry. The inner workings of the huge glass cabinet, which could only be manoeuvred into the laboratory in separate parts, function like a small power station. In reverse electrolysis, hydrogen reacts with atmospheric oxygen to produce electricity, heat and water. The fuel cell itself in which this happens is only about the size of a shoebox – stacked inside (hence the name "stack") are units, each with an anode, cathode, and membrane, which cause the molecules to react in the desired manner. Professor Allmendinger's actual field of research will be the periphery of the fuel cell – all the many pipes, pumps and parts that can potentially be optimised, perhaps replaced by more cost-effective solutions. The promising project is being funded by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Economic Affairs, Labour and Housing with around €300,000.

Cars as mobile heating units

Hydrogen technology will play a huge role in the future, Professor Allmendinger is convinced. "But we are competing here against combustion technology, which took over 100 years to develop," he explains. There are several advantages of the new propulsion systems. "Green" hydrogen (i.e., that obtained from water by electrolysis) is not only more environmentally friendly, it is also more efficient. At 60-70%, the efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells is higher than that of conventional internal combustion engines. "A car with an internal combustion engine is actually a mobile heating unit," Allmendinger exclaims. In hydrogen-powered vehicles, only 40% of the kilowatt hours are given off as heat, compared with around 70% in internal combustion engines. Allmendinger describes another major advantage that hydrogen technology has over battery-powered cars as being the still unresolved issue of disposal. The risk of fire is still a problem with the batteries currently in use, "because without an external supply of oxygen, they can catch fire.”

Cooperation with industry

The interior of the glass cabinet has been specially designed so that researchers can easily reach even the smallest of parts. Furtwangen University is cooperating closely with industrial partner companies on the project – employees from Marquardt, ElringKlinger and ETO MAGNETIC are working together to assemble the parts they have supplied, to produce a functioning whole. They are all keen to be directly involved in the further development of the technology. During commissioning, the testing stand will be connected to the IFC's building technology – the electricity that the plant supplies will be used in the building, and the air it requires is supplied by compressors in the basement. Only the hydrogen remains a challenge for the researchers. "When the test stand is running at full capacity, we’ll have to change the hydrogen cylinders every hour," says Professor Allmendinger. Good that this will be easier to do at filling stations for the hydrogen cars of the future!