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A step ahead

15. August 2023 - from Folke Heyer

Alternative fuels, hybridization, batteries or fuel cells: figuring out which path mobility will take in future is extremely difficult, even with current EU guidelines for cars and trucks. What’s hard for consumers is even more difficult for manufacturers.

What Do Hydrogen Recirculation Blowers Do?

The blower performs a key function in fuel cell systems. Its task is to return hydrogen unused during the reaction to the stack in the cell. This enhances the fuel cell’s efficiency and extends its service life. Furthermore, it enables even distribution of hydrogen, which improves a the system’s starting behaviour.

Forced to make fundamental decisions far in advance that will have a decisive impact on their own product portfolios, auto parts makers and their development departments face the same conundrum. Jobs depend on this, and often the success or failure of entire companies. This is why being open to new technologies at an early stage is such a boon, as well as having pursued various drive concepts as a development partner for many years.

Rheinmetall is benefitting now from the conjunction of these two factors. After over two decades of research and development, Rheinmetall’s Sensors and Actuators division is thoroughly at home in hydrogen technology as well. Based on this experience, products have emerged that now play a central role in fuel cells.

If the hydrogen used here is not only a very volatile commodity, it is above all a rare and valuable one. Despite this, it is sure to find its place in future applications (see interview with Professor Claudia Kemfert). Ronny Marzog, head of the department responsible for the product, is convinced of this: “With long-distance trucks that have to cover over 500 kilometres in a day, there will be no getting around the fuel cell. We’re talking here about fuel cell stacks with an output in the 100-150 kW range.”

This is borne out by orders worth nearly half a billion euros in the meantime – and for just one product, the hydrogen recirculation blower, or HRB, which has now won over customers both at home and abroad. Nor are these customers limited to the truck and bus domain. Maritime applications, including ferries and container ships, for example, form part of the picture, as do uses in stationary applications such as emergency generators. The critical factor in all these procurement decisions was the quality and reliability of the components, currently the highest on the market.

When producing recirculation blowers, meticulous quality control is an indispensable part of the process.
Rheinmetall has been developing hydrogen technology products for over two decades. (Images: Ralf Grothe, 2023)

A Single Source

Producing the blowers requires teamwork in the truest sense of the word. A new production line is currently being built at Rheinmetall’s Hartha plant in Saxony. Vendor parts come from the Group’s Niederrhein plant (castings) and Abadiano in the Basque Country (electronics). Marzog expects the first qualification components to be ready for inspection by the third quarter of 2023, followed by standard serial products, “Made in Saxony”.

The Road Ahead

Marzog and his team are already developing units for even more powerful blowers. Some truck customers are now calling for a power intake of 2.5 kW. First and foremost, the developers are interested in achieving the required high-voltage stability in the components, while maintaining the same extremely high quality and density as well as the lifecycle target of 25,000 operating hours: a recirculation blower needs to reflect the operating lifetime of a modern long-distance truck.

In addition, the company is working on hydrogen recirculation blowers for stack outputs of 20-40 Watts, for cars and small stationary applications, for example, which have now reached an advanced stage of development. Owing to the most recent successes and the expected dynamic growth of the market, the company is expanding its development efforts in this area. Moreover, an array of other innovative components is now emerging that will progressively augment the company’s portfolio. Behind all this is also a strategic decision by the company: Rheinmetall intends to play an enduring role in helping industry move toward more environmentally sustainable, advanced drive technologies for mobile and stationary applications alike and again is a step ahead.

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