Stellantis is willing to make a dent in the sale of hydrogen powered vehicles. At least among its vans for the transport of small goods or delivery, such as its Citroën Jumpy, Peugeot Expert or Opel Vivaro. The proposal is really interesting, as it also contemplates the recycling of electric batteries.
At the moment, Stellantis already has the potential to produce a thousand hydrogen vehicles in a year. The goal is to reach 10,000 units per year in 2024 and, from 2025, continue growing to leave this barrier behind, although there are no specific data on the next steps or deadlines.
“Ultra-fast” charges of hydrogen
The great potential of hydrogen is how fast it can be refueled. Vehicles that use this fuel produce electricity in a small portable power station. It is what we call, fuel cell. This can send the electricity to the batteries, where it is stored, to then pass to the electric motor. Another possibility, as in the Stellantis vehicles, is for the fuel cell to power the electric motor directly. On the road, the car, the van or the truck, just generates air and water vaporwhich makes it a zero emission car.
The data offered by Stellantis say that, with three tanks capable of storing 4.4 kg of hydrogen, the vehicle is capable of traveling 350 kilometers. To increase its autonomy, 10.5 kWh batteries add another 50 extra kilometers with which to get out of trouble. In total, there are 400 kilometers of electric autonomy that have a great advantage over the traditional plug: the tanks are recharged in three minutes. In addition, if an emergency electrical impulse is necessary, their vans admit powers of 11 kW in alternating current, so recharging their batteries is only a matter of an hour.
In practice, we had the opportunity to recharge for us same the tanks of a Peugeot e-Expert. The road to the hydrogen was as expected: the same sensations as in an electric car, with greater smoothness, less noise and instant acceleration. Of course, it must be taken into account that, in the case of Stellantis vans, the maximum speed to which they are limited is 110 km/h. To play with their performance and autonomy, they have three driving modes that limit engine power: ECO (60 kW/80 hp), Normal (80 kW/107 hp) and Power (100 kW/134 hp).
When we get to the hydrogen, the operation is simple. A button is pressed on the dashboard that alerts the vehicle that we are going to refuel hydrogen. In fact, the gate does not open without this previous step. For greater security, the vehicle shows us an approval message on the instrument panel.
Next, we open the lid of the tank, remove a small plastic lock and we can now hook the hose. When it is well hooked in the mouth of the entrance (the trigger of the gun has to be secured) we can go to the pump. There, the machine tells us the pressure at which we can charge the hydrogen. In our case, only one available option is displayed: 700 bares. Once chosen, we press the green button and either we wait for the tanks to fill up, or we press the red button when we want to stop charging. Stopped it, we unlock the safety of the gun, press hard inward, and then pull out the hose.
The process is quick as soon as the steps are mastered. And very similar to refueling diesel or gasoline. However, there is one detail that caught my attention. If we misplace the hose, as it was in our first attempt, the dispenser does not launch any type of warning. It just won’t load. And it is that the vehicle and the hydrogenerator communicate to guarantee that the process is completely safe. If either of the two parties detects that something is wrong, the recharge does not start. Still, it would be nice if the dispenser could display an error signal to let us know that something isn’t working as it should.
At the moment, Stellantis is using hydrogen technology in the three aforementioned vans. They can be produced from scratch, as if they were vehicles that had been conceived to be powered by this type of fuel from the beginning, or by recycling their batteries, as we will see a little further down.
In both cases, they include the unit in charge of convert hydrogen into electrical energy next to the engine. The gas tanks are located under the floor in a longitudinal position and are resistant to high temperatures to avoid major damage in the event of a fire. In addition, they are protected by a structure that embraces them and prevents their deterioration in the event of an accident. Under the seats are the two small batteries that provide the 10.5 kWh or 50 extra kilometers of autonomy. With this structure, the vans do not lose load capacity.
But what is really interesting about the plant that Stellantis has dedicated to hydrogen in Rüsselsheim is its electric battery operating room. This is where the hydrogen transport project gains relevance within the automobile group. Your engineers and mechanics can take an electric van, remove the batteries, fill that space with hydrogen tanks, and… magic happens. Now the van is still an electric vehicle, but the charging time is limited to three minutes. That is, they can achieve 350 kilometers in exclusively electric mode in the same time that diesel or gasoline is refueled. What is unthinkable if we are tied to a plug.
The alternative is attractive if you already have an electric van that you want to convert to a hydrogen one. In this way, the worker maintains a vehicle defined as zero emissions but gains a lot of speed in recharging. In fact, he stops accumulating waiting hours with the vehicle stopped. Of course, he must take into account where he is going to refuel, because in Germany only 100 stations available with this service. In France there are 50 points where you can refuel hydrogen. In Spain we do not have any public access hydrogen.
Furthermore, Stellantis engineers and mechanics don’t just remove the batteries from the electric versions and swap them out for hydrogen tanks. These electricity containers are checked and their cells repaired to put them back in operation. At the same time, they study what has deteriorated the batteries and made them lose capacity and, in addition, they win the possibility of including them in new models that are put up for sale. In fact, they confirmed to us that the warranty of these revised batteries It is exactly the same as for the current ones that are for sale: eight years and 160,000 kilometers for 70% capacity.
A path full of uncertainty
The truth is that the idea presented is good and there will be someone who will be satisfied. But hydrogen still has a long way to go if it wants to prevail over electricity. One option is to position itself as a fuel for heavy transport, goods and people.
At the moment, refueling hydrogen in Europe is a pipe dream almost limited to Germany and France, the two countries where Stellantis has launched this project. In the entire German country there are barely 100 service stations that allow hydrogen to be refueled. And, in our case, the price was €12,850/kg of hydrogen. In it, we added 0.78 kg to the tanks. Or, what is the same, we pay 10.02 euros for said recharge. It is a price of 16,155 euros/100 kilometers. In Germany, it is the same as a diesel vehicle that consumes between seven and eight liters per 100 kilometers.
With these data, it is difficult to think that hydrogen is offered as an attractive alternative to a driver. Perhaps a transporter who already has a Stellantis van and wants to speed up recharging, could find it useful, but at the cost of filling the tanks at a price very similar to that of fossil fuels, for which he loses the savings of filling batteries with a slow recharge overnight. Let’s not talk about a private driver who would have to search with a magnifying glass for available service stations to fill the tanks at the same price as with a diesel vehicle.
In fact, in motorpassion they had the opportunity to test the Toyota Mirai, the hydrogen vehicle that has been with us the longest. In his test, the saloon consumed 1.25 kg/100 kilometers. At the price that is the same in Germany, it would now cost 16,026 euros. Filling its tanks, which homologate 650 km of autonomy with a consumption of 0.79 kg/100 km, would cost 71,96 euros.
The big problem with hydrogen is its production and transport, with a very low global efficiency from when it is produced until it is consumed. Producing it is not only expensive, but also its transport, since it is 14 times more volatile than air and tanks subject to very high pressures are needed inside. In other words, its distribution also makes the final price at which it is sold significantly more expensive. So much so that there has been thought of building a network of gas pipelines for its transport.
All in all, it is not difficult to imagine that hydrogen can be a very interesting alternative to electricity for the transport of passengers and goods. A limited network of service stations does not have to be a problem if it is well distributed, for example, spread over the large logistics centers from the country. In this way, the vehicles do not have to travel extra kilometres, always refueling at origin and destination. Even some interchangeable hydrogen cylinders, as Toyota studies, can provide extra autonomy where the investment of installing a hydrogen generator is not worth it.
Electricity has not shown itself to be a viable alternative to large diesel engines. At least for the time being, and the recharges are very long for vehicles that, moreover, due to their morphology, are not very aerodynamic, which can significantly limit their autonomy. With hydrogen, Europe has the opportunity to clean up a heavy vehicle fleet that continues to age and is struggling to find a truly clean alternative in the midst of the fight against combustion engines.
The European plan, for the moment, is invest 60,000 million euros of this technology until 2030. Hydrogen, at the moment, has the same price as diesel but lacks CO2 emissions and, in addition, it eliminates the long waiting times of electric vehicles. Stellantis is determined to get into that game.