Last spring, we told you about Symbio FCell, a French firm specialising in building small-size fuel cell systems specifically for use as range-extenders in electric cars.
When we last covered the firm, it has just put a small test fleet of Renault Kangoo Z.E. electric vans fitted with its range-extending fuel cell technology on the road as part of a trail with La Poste, the French postal service. It has also just secured an undisclosed but ‘significant’ investment from Michelin, tyre company better known for its jolly rolly-polly ‘Michelin Man’ and tourist maps.
Now, some eight months later, Symbio FCell has delivered the first five of forty Renault Kangoo Z.E. electric vans powered by its hydrogen fuel cell range extending technology to join the official utility fleet of the Counseil Général de la Manche in lower Normandy.
The new test fleet is part of a larger project demonstration which the firm says will demonstrate the effectiveness of hydrogen power as a convenient and zero-emissions range-extender for electric cars which would ordinarily use fossil fuels for range-extending purposes.
Looking and driving very much like any standard production Renault Kangoo Z.E. commercial van, the hydrogen fuel cell plug-in hybrids feature the same 22 kilowatt on-board battery pack and 44 kilowatt electric motor as a standard Kangoo Z.E., but also feature a small hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen fuel tank. With a capacity of 1.8 kilograms of hydrogen fuel, the tank can provide enough power to extend the range of the commercial vehicle by an additional 110 miles or so beyond the standard 110-miles of NEDC-rated range in all-electric model.
This makes it possible for the vehicle to drive 220 miles between charges, giving it a far greater autonomy during the work day, with a dedicated depot-based refuelling station in Saint Lo providing the council’s vehicles easy refuelling without needing to go to a commercial filling station.
While there are a number of challenges facing hydrogen fuel cell technology, including the carbon footprint and energy inefficiency of producing the hydrogen fuel in the first place, plug-in hydrogen hybrid vehicles do have some major advantages over both hydrogen fuel cell cars and traditional plug-in hybrids.
First, the inclusion of an on-board battery pack with plug-in capability means that for regular, local trips, cheaply produced electricity from renewable power sources can be used to power the vehicle, only using hydrogen for range-extending capabilities when no on-board battery charging exists. Even in a fleet situation, an hour-long lunch break or charging while on a maintenance call can supplement even a nearly depleted battery pack with enough power to provide an additional fifteen to twenty miles of range.
Secondly, a plug-in hybrid with hydrogen range extending capabilities is far more preferable to a gasoline or diesel range-extended plug-in. Aside from the obvious tailpipe emissions, fossil fuel refining is still a terribly messy, expensive and carbon-intensive process. While the majority of hydrogen is still produced with some inherent carbon emissions and is far less efficient than an electric vehicle for use as a fuel, methods of hydrogen fuel production are already becoming greener than they were ten years ago.
But while we’re glad to see a cleaner, less carbon-producing way of extending an electric vehicle’s range, we’re also skeptical about the shelf life of this particular technology in the light of next-generation battery packs from companies like LG Chem, Nissan and Tesla Motors. With next-generation electric cars generally expected to have a range per charge of between 200 and 300 miles thanks to more energy-dense battery packs, offering a complicated hydrogen fuel cell range extender for just an increase of one hundred miles may soon become a moot point.
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