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First hydrogen users in Germany:
is this the bus fuel of the future?

Guest article by Christian Marquordt for UTM Urban Transport Magazine

Battery-electric buses are well on the march in Germany too. However, it is not uncommon for the battery range to limit their daily usage. This is where fuel cell, i.e. hydrogen-powered buses, can provide a sensible alternative. In Germany there are already some companies operating them, and others will follow.

Not since yesterday have we known that we can no longer count on fossil fuels to power buses. While this tried and tested technology has worked admirably for more than 100 years, the combustion of fossil fuels that it involves releases harmful emissions. And that is precisely what has to stop.

So we need alternatives. Battery-electric buses have established themselves in recent years and are currently being marketed by a host of manufacturers. Besides household names such as MAN, Mercedes, Solaris and VDL, there are newcomers such as Ebusco and Irizar. These vehicles dutifully perform as intended, but they still have a weak point. From an early morning start at the bus depot, the battery capacity is insufficient for a 24-hour round trip. So what is needed are remotely chargeable electric buses. Either that, or they must operate on relatively short daily routes. While every bus network has a range of shorter routes, it has others as well.

An opportunity for fuel cell buses

However, there is another option entirely: fuel cell buses, powered by hydrogen which can be filled up just like diesel vehicles. A fuel cell is fed with hydrogen which then reacts with air, creating an electrical current for powering the bus. Already, buses can fill up with sufficient hydrogen to far exceed the range of a battery-electric bus. The Portuguese manufacturer Caetano for example gives the range of its Caetano H 2 City Gold as 450 km, which lets practically every bus complete a 24-hour shift on any route without refuelling.

So what waste products do fuel cell buses produce? Answer: none. All the back end of a vehicle emits is chemically pure water – sometimes as small puffs of steam. But where does the hydrogen for buses come from? Stories abound of environmentally harmful and extremely costly hydrogen that is produced specifically for buses, but often that is not at all the case.

Bielefeld MoBiel. Steam as an emission! Image: Kai Budach
Bielefeld MoBiel. Steam as an emission! Image: Kai Budach

Today’s usage in Germany

Southwest of Cologne lies the town of Hürth, where Regionalverkehr Köln (RVK) operates urban bus routes. It does so with fuel cell buses from the Belgian manufacturer Van Hool. The hydrogen they use is not a costly, specially produced fuel. The buses are taken to Chemiepark Hürth, an industrial site in the city, where they fill up with hydrogen, a normal by-product of production processes at the chemical site in Hürth. Before the arrival of fuel cell buses in Hürth nobody knew what to do with this “waste product“. This energy source was simply flared. Isn’t it good that we can make sensible use of it now for powering buses?

The situation is similar in Wuppertal, where the Nächstebreck bus depot and a waste incineration plant, also owned by the local utility concern, are on neighbouring properties. At the waste plant WSW (Wuppertaler Stadtwerke) produces hydrogen. This is fed via a short pipeline to the bus depot, where ten Van Hool A 330 FC and ten Solaris Urbino 12 hydrogen buses are supplied with fuel. Uli Jaeger, head of WSW in Wuppertal: “There is no way we could fill up our buses any cheaper than with our own hydrogen.“

In the meantime there are other operators such as ESWE in Wiesbaden who besides battery-electric vehicles also own fuel cell buses. The latter operate on routes that demand an extended vehicle range. By the end of the year all 13 Solaris Urbino 12 hydrogen buses currently on order are intended to serve regular bus routes in Frankfurt. The DB subsidiary Autokraft in Niebüll is another user, and Verkehrsbetriebe MoBiel in Bielefeld has already taken delivery of four Caetano/Toyota fuel cell buses, which will shortly commence regular services. This company has previously not operated battery-electric buses alone. Several other companies have also trialled fuel cell buses, including in Dormagen and Heidelberg among others.

And there is also this piece of news: Ruhrbahn in Essen and Mülheim has set its sights firmly on fuel cell buses for the future and wants 200 vehicles to fully replace its current fleet by 2033. It will be fascinating to see if this comes to pass.

RVK Köln Image: RVK in Bensberg
RVK Köln Image: RVK in Bensberg
Wuppertal Image: Christian Marquordt
Wuppertal Image: Christian Marquordt

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