• Tokyo, one of the world’s busiest cities. The more environmentally friendly the transport, the higher the quality of life.

    GLC F-CELL: Our goal is clear.

    Presenting the Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL – the next generation of fuel-cell technology. We took a pre-series model with us on a trip to Tokyo, the hydrogen capital of the world.

    Wasserstoffverbrauch kombiniert: 0,34 kg/100 km;
    CO2-Emissionen kombiniert: 0 g/km;
    Stromverbrauch kombiniert: 13,7 kWh/100 km.4

    Text: Jörg Heuer | Photos: Jan van Endert

Environmentally friendly technology.

It’s one of those big, universal dreams: finding a way to derive energy from water. Just thinking about it feels somehow pure and inspiring. Back in the early 1870s, French author and co-founder of science fiction, Jules Verne, wrote in his novel “The Mysterious Island”, “Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light of an intensity of which coal is not capable.” The smallest and lightest of all elements, hydrogen has the highest energy density values per kilogram of all energy carriers used today. Of course, Jules Verne won’t have had road traffic in mind when he made his prediction. In 1870, Carl Benz was still a decade and a half away from inventing the car. For a long time, the technology remained a utopian vision. But then came the prototypes. And today, fuel cells – that environmentally friendly technology able to transform water into electricity to propel electric engines – in cars have become a reality.

The “F-Cell” on the tail of the pre-series car, a vehicle not available for purchase, stands for fuel cell.

The “F-CELL” on the tail of the pre-series car, a vehicle not available for purchase, stands for fuel cell.

Tokyo is perpetually buzzing these days, and stillness is rarely to be found.

Tokyo is perpetually buzzing these days and stillness is rarely to be found.

Paying a visit to a pioneer.

Tokyo, Japan. The Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL pre-series model glides almost silently across one of the world’s busiest road junctions. It is late in the evening, but the countless illuminated billboards make it feel almost like day. Since it was first presented at the IAA in Frankfurt last autumn, the F-CELL has been undergoing public tests. Today, the fuel-cell car is turning heads in Shibuya, one of the liveliest of Tokyo’s 23 districts. Here, the streets are lined with restaurants, bars, shopping malls and elegant boutiques, and filled with thousands of people. Shibuya is loud, colourful, raucous, and obsessed with the futuristic. Japan’s largest metropolis is considered the hydrogen capital of the world.

Nowhere else is so much energy derived from fuel cells, nowhere else has such a wide network of hydrogen fuel stations. By 2020, Japan aims to have invested more than 330 million euros in infrastructure and subsidies for hydrogen-powered vehicles, as part of its long-term strategy to establish hydrogen as a key energy carrier. There is even talk of shifting much of the country’s electricity production to fuel-cell technology. Japan already has more than 200,000 micro fuel-cell systems. These produce electricity for cars, buses, trucks, refrigerators and street lamps, as well as heat for homes and industrial facilities. It also has 85 hydrogen refuelling stations, which, while it may not sound like a lot, is the highest number of any country in the world. Japan therefore leads the field when it comes to this very promising, yet still highly complex technology.

“You get hydrogen almost everywhere in the world.”

But what makes hydrogen so challenging for engineers and scientists? Hydrogen is a small, rapidly diffusing molecule. Generating it is difficult, and storing it, in particular for the fuelling of cars, has long proved highly complex and problematic. In 1975, Mercedes-Benz introduced the world’s first hydrogen-powered test vehicle with a hybrid storage tank. Experiments then followed on the 280 TE, the 230 E, the V-Class and the A-Class. 2011 marked the launch of the “Mercedes-Benz F-CELL World Drive” in Stuttgart, an event that would see several fuel-cell-powered B-Class models circumnavigate the world to prove their roadworthiness. The technology has advanced since then, and we now have fourth-generation prototypes of hydrogen-powered vehicles. It is very expensive, however, although increasing mass production is leading to lower component prices. “You get hydrogen almost everywhere in the world,” explains Professor Dr Christian Mohrdieck, head of Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology at Daimler AG. “It’s high time we made effective use of this democratic energy carrier.”

The pre-series model presented at the IAA is Mercedes-Benz’s first vehicle with an “electro-mobile double heart”, as Mohrdieck calls it. This combination of fuel cells and battery technology makes the vehicle an entirely electric plug-in hybrid. The electric engine draws its energy both from the hydrogen-powered fuel cells and from the lithium-ion battery, and is also able to recover kinetic energy. It has a range of 400 kilometres based solely on the hydrogen in its tank. Filling this 4.4-kilogram tank takes about three minutes. Its exhaust emits only steam. The following day. The sun shines brightly as we cruise over Rainbow Bridge, one of the city’s best-known landmarks, to cross Tokyo Bay. Not far from Tokyo Tower, we turn off and head towards a hydrogen refuelling station. Station attendant Mori Saroshi, 37, welcomes us with a big smile. “I’ve read a lot about the GLC F-CELL. I like it.” Saroshi asks us all about the car’s power, top speed, range – and about how likely he is to see the car in Tokyo traffic in the near future.

Station attendant Mori Saroshi is very pleased to have chanced upon the car with the test-vehicle number plates.

Station attendant Mori Saroshi is very pleased to have chanced upon the car with the test-vehicle number plates.

Huge environmental benefits.

According to a current study entitled “Energy of the future? Sustainable mobility through fuel cells and H2”, the use of hydrogen could bring about great change. The study, conducted jointly by Shell and the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, states that by the year 2050, we could realistically have 113 million hydrogen-powered cars on our roads. This would constitute a saving of 68 million tonnes of standard fuel and 200 million tonnes of CO2 emissions – “provided renewable energy is used for the electrolysis process,” says Professor Dr Manfred Fischedick of the Wuppertal Institute. Hydrogen energy can only bear environmental benefits if it is produced sustainably. These figures are of course very ambitious. So far, there are only around 3,500 hydrogen-powered cars in the whole world. Many of these are in Japan, with some in western Europe and some in the US (mostly in California). The numbers clearly correlate with the respective availability of refuelling stations.

Jules Verne’s dream car.

And while the current refuelling infrastructure is very scattered, development in this area is beginning to accelerate in North America, Western Europe and Asia, as the Shell study confirms. Among those seeking to promote fuel-cell technology is the German Federal Government, which in 2015 introduced a corresponding funding programme. And although politicians, energy industry representatives and transport providers are cooperating closely in this respect, the network of hydrogen refuelling stations in Germany remains extremely sparse, with only 40 such stations between Hamburg and Munich. However, this figure is projected to grow to 100 by the end of this year, and to have turned into a comprehensive network of 400 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2023. Development in this field is therefore speeding up, with Mercedes-Benz among the frontrunners in hydrogen technology. As with Mercedes-Benz vehicles powered by combustion engines, the pre-series vehicles have the driving programmes Eco, Comfort and Sport at their disposal. When in hybrid mode, the car draws its power from both the fuel cells and the battery. The F-CELL mode keeps the battery charge constant by transferring energy from the fuel cell.

When in battery mode, the car is powered by battery-electric energy. In charge mode, the fuel cell charges the battery, doing away with the need to find a plug socket or refuelling station. The fuel cells in the test vehicle are one third smaller than in previous models, and compact enough to fit under standard bonnets. They have 40% more power than their predecessors, and use a lot less platinum, which greatly reduces manufacturing costs. The battery is located in the tail of the car, and the two multi-layer, collision-protected tanks are built into its underbody. The refuelling process involves filling these with gaseous hydrogen at a pressure of 700 bar. We take the pre-series model to the port. Its next stop: the L.A. Motor Show. Before taking our leave of the car, we open up the luggage compartment to have a look inside. As with the combustion engine-powered plug-in, the battery doesn’t take up much space: the boot is only slightly smaller than in a standard GLC. A series production car powered by hydrogen would, without doubt, be Jules Verne’s dream car.

Professor Dr Christian Mohrdieck, Head of Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology at Daimler AG.

Professor Dr Christian Mohrdieck, Head of Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology at Daimler AG.

An interview with Mercedes-Benz’s “Mister F-CELL”.

What do you find so fascinating about the hydrogen-powered GLC?

That it is able to deliver almost the same performance as a car with a combustion engine. I’m also very taken with its short refuelling time, its range, its architecture – which we hardly had to modify at all. And with the fact that it is such an environmentally sound solution. What’s more: over the past few years, we have managed to both optimise the technology and reduce the related costs considerably. One major cost-cutting breakthrough involved figuring out how to reduce the platinum content by 90%. The platinum content of our fuel cells is now only a little higher than that found in the catalytic converters of standard cars. These are all things I find fascinating.

How important will this type of power be in the future?

I feel that we at Daimler AG need both fuel-cell power as well as battery-electric power in order to fulfil the requirements of our customers across all our vehicle types, from city runabouts, saloons and SUVs through to vans, trucks and buses.

Constructed like a sandwich.

A fuel cell is constructed like a sandwich. In the middle is a plastic film – the proton exchange membrane. Both sides of the membrane are coated with a thin catalyst film and a gas-permeable electrode. Sandwiching the membrane are two bipolar plates, into which tiny gas channels have been drilled. Flowing through these channels are hydrogen on the one side, oxygen on the other. The catalyst splits the hydrogen atoms into protons and electrons. The protons penetrate the membrane while the electrons do not. In this way, an electric current is generated between the two electrodes. Connecting the two electrodes generates direct current. Water and heat are produced as byproducts in this process. The GLC F-CELL draws its power from an assembly comprising several of these fuel cells, which is referred to as the stack.

F-CELL — the driving modes:
  • Hybrid: The electric engines draw their power from the fuel cells and the battery at the same time.
  • F-CELL: The car is powered by hydrogen alone; the fuel cells keeps the battery charged.
  • Battery: The F-CELL is powered entirely battery-electrically; the fuel cell system is not active.
  • Charge: The high-voltage lithium-ion battery is charged during driving by the fuel cells.

More information.