EKPO Fuel Cell Technologies’ Developments in EV Technology
Armin Diez, CTO and COO of EKPO Fuel Cell Technologies talks us through the development and large-scale production of high-performance fuel cell stacks to further advance CO2-neutral mobility
Mr. Diez, EKPO has been active in the fuel cell sector for around 20 years through its parent companies ElringKlinger and Plastic Omnium. Tell us about your beginnings with fuel cells…
Armin Diez: As far as ElringKlinger is concerned, we started developing the first bipolar plates for fuel cells in 1999. The production process for manufacturing a bipolar plate is similar to that of a cylinder-head gasket – and here we are the global market leader with a great deal of expertise. The step from gasket to bipolar plate was therefore an obvious one. We were in contact with a major OEM in southern Germany. At that time, we were also already thinking about industrialization and had already secured some important patents. That’s how it all started.
Can you give us an overview of the product portfolio?
EKPO is a full-range supplier of fuel cell stacks and components. Our technology and products are based on know-how that we have built up over more than two decades. Our goal is clearly defined: The development and large-scale production of stack components such as bipolar plates or media modules as well as high-performance fuel cell stacks to further advance CO2-neutral mobility – whether on road, rail, water or off-road. Our product range is based on metal bipolar plates and our own in-house assembled membrane electrode assembly (MEA). This allows us to set standards in power density while offering durability suitable for use primarily in commercial vehicles.
Fuel cells are not a new technology, but they have attracted a lot of attention in the last 18 months. Why is that? What is being done differently now?
The technology has lain dormant for many years, with us constantly working on it. The growing awareness in society of global warming is now spurring the issue. This is to our benefit.
Zero-emission mobility is much higher on the political agenda: Europe is joining forces and launching transnational projects. The goal is to drive a massive expansion of green hydrogen production capacity in the near future to decarbonize industry and mobility. 23 of 27 EU member states are involved. France and Germany in particular are leading the way and have recently announced funding budgets of €7 billion and €9 billion respectively in hydrogen development.
But it’s not just Germany and Europe that are stepping on the gas here – we’re seeing a global trend from Japan, Korea, China to Europe and North America. The goals of government funding also include the further industrialization of fuel cell technology. Another very important point: Due to the progress and expansion of regeneratively generated energy (wind, sun, water) as well as the advances in electrolysers, affordable green hydrogen is no longer just a vision.
High cost, low lifetime and manageable reliability are seen as the main barriers to commercialization of fuel cell technology. Would you agree with that?
It’s true that the cost of the technology and limited experience, as well as slow infrastructure development, have been the main barriers to fuel cell deployment. But that will change.
EKPO is already achieving much higher productivity through industrialized processes, plus volume effects that are also reducing costs for material suppliers. As the market ramps up, economies of scale will be generated by increasing volumes along the entire value chain. Unit costs will fall, we expect by at least a factor of 5. This will make the technology increasingly competitive for passenger cars as well, generating even greater demand. To this end, EKPO has already set up a production line in Germany that is designed for an annual capacity of up to 10,000 stacks and can be expanded quickly.
In terms of reliability, Toyota, Hyundai and Daimler have demonstrated the maturity of the technology. Their passenger car models (Mirai, Nexo, GLC) have shown no significant problems in the field. In fact, FCEVs are used daily in demanding applications, such as cab operations in Paris.
While longevity has already been proven for passenger car applications, fuel cell lifetimes of up to 30,000 hours are required for commercial vehicle applications, such as heavy trucks, trains or buses. In addition, in this market segment, efficiency or hydrogen consumption is a very important parameter which, especially at high mileages, is factored into the operating costs even more than the fuel cell stack costs and ultimately represents an important factor for economic viability.
In addition, EKPO is already actively working on the next generation of stacks, cooperating with truck, bus and train manufacturers. We are ready for large volumes.