The Volkswagen group might have its sights set firmly on becoming the world’s leading electrified automaker by 2020, but it also appears keen to dominate the world of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to.
Announced this morning by Volkswagen’s luxury brand Audi, the German automaker has just signed an extensive development agreement with Canadian company Ballard Power Systems Inc., granting it rights to use the firm’s patented proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell technology.
Most noticeably, PEM fuel cells operate at a far lower temperature than other fuel cell types, making them particularly useful for use in cars since their nominal operating temperature sits around the same point as a conventional internal-combustion engine.
Although Audi’s own press release doesn’t go into great deals about the patents it has been granted permission to use, Ballard Power Systems Inc.’s own press release goes into a little more detail.
Under the deal, worth an estimated US $80-$112 million, the Canadian company says it will transfer ‘certain automotive-related fuel cell intellectual property’ to Audi, as well as providing a two-year extension of an engineering services contract already in place between the two firms.
The extension itself, valid through Mark 2019, continues a previous four-year engineering agreement set up by Audi’s parent group Volkswagen AG back in 2013. In 2019, the two firms will have the option to extend their partnership for another two years, pending agreement from both sides.
Currently, the Canadian firm manufactures and sells for use in distributed power generation systems, as well as for hydrogen-powered forklift trucks and busses. So far, it has shipped an estimated 215 megawatts of fuel cells to customers in a variety of different industries.
Given the long-standing relationship between the two firms, it’s no surprise that Ballard was responsible for building the hydrogen fuel cells used in the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen HyMotion, Passatt Hymotion prototype and Audi A7 Sportback h-tron quattro we saw at last November’s LA Auto Show. In all three cases, Ballard provided the Volkswagen group with the memberane electrode assembly along with plate and stack components needed to successfully build a hydrogen fuel cell. It also helped the Volkswagen Group design and test elements of its prototype hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
“Audi, VW and the Volkswagen Group are very pleased with the acquisition of a world-class automotive fuel cell patent portfolio. We believe that this portfolio, together with the combined fuel cell skills and expertise of our group and Ballard, will underpin our ability to play a leading role in fuel cell automotive development and commercialization,” said Prof. Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg, Audi’s technical boss in an official statement earlier today.
“This transaction extends and deepens our relationship with the Volkswagen Group, a leading global automotive manufacturer. The IP transfer surfaces significant value for Ballard. And, extension of the engineering services contract reflects a growing positive sentiment toward fuel cells within the automotive sector, along with the outstanding progress made to date in our work with Volkswagen Group on its fuel cell car programs,” added Randy MacEwen, President and CEO of Ballard Power Systems. “Ballard’s Technology Solutions group is helping customers accelerate fuel cell development through the application of our world-class, customized engineering services capability, along with access to our deep IP portfolio and related know-how. This transaction with Volkswagen marks a milestone in the growth and delivery of Ballard Technology Solutions.”
As for the reasoning behind buying the rights to these patents rather than using the patents made available by both Toyota and Hyundai’s own hydrogen fuel cell programs? Obviously, we can only speculate to the reasons here. But if buying the patents from a third party means Volkswagen can have a competitive edge over its Asian competitors, then we’re guessing it’s well worth the $80+ million the Volkswagen group is rumored to have spent.
And thanks to its focus on easily-scalable, adaptable platform architectures that can acomodate a variety of drivetrains, we’re guessing those at Volkswagen aren’t as worried about being first but ensuring they have the killer app their competitors don’t.
Only time — and money — will tell if that’s the case.
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