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Frankfurt show: Mercedes goes hybrid with fuel cell

Fuel sell: Mercedes-Benz has taken the plug-in hybrid route with its upcoming GLC F-Cell which can run on battery power, a hydrogen fuel-cell stack or both.

Hydrogen and electricity to power Mercedes’ plug-in hybrid fuel-cell vehicle

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Mercedes-Benz logo14 Sep 2017

By RON HAMMERTON

MERCEDES-BENZ has used the Frankfurt motor show to announce plans to introduce the world’s first plug-in hybrid production vehicle to combine battery power with a hydrogen fuel cell.

Described by Mercedes as a practical family friendly electric vehicle (EV) with a driving range of up to 437km, the GLC F-Cell SUV will be offered as an alternative to an all-electric GLC under Mercedes’ EQ Power flag, with production starting in Germany in late 2019.

Europe and the United States are on the list of markets for the new vehicle, but so far Australia – where public hydrogen refuelling stations are yet to be established – has not been mentioned in dispatches.

Quick refuelling is hydrogen’s advantage over pure EVs, but the lack of refuelling infrastructure compared with electricity is the current hurdle. By going hybrid, the F-Cell offers the best of both worlds.

All other current hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, including the Honda Clarity, Toyota Mirai, Audi H-tron and Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, run only on hydrogen-fuelled electricity.

The GLC F-Cell breaks that mould by adding a 13.8kWh lithium-ion battery that provides 49km of driving before the fuel cell takes over.

This means that for most journeys, such as the daily commute, drivers will be able to charge their car from a home socket or public charger, and only need to fill up the twin carbon-fibre hydrogen fuel tanks – holding 4.4kg of the gas under the rear seat – on longer journeys.

The tanks – one in the GLC’s vacant transmission tunnel down the middle of the car and the other under the back seat – can be refuelled in just three minutes, while the battery can be charged in 1.5 hours on high charge.

The electric motor driving the rear wheels turns out a healthy 147kW of power and 350Nm of torque, but no performance figures have been revealed, nor any pricing.

Mercedes says that for the GLC F-Cell it developed a world-first fuel-cell system that is not only 40 per cent more efficient than its previous cell in its 2010 B-Class F-Cell, but also 30 per cent more compact, allowing the entire fuel cell system to be housed in the engine bay for the first time.

It says the use of expensive platinum has been cut by 90 per cent without affecting performance.

The drive system has four modes: Hybrid, Battery, F-Cell and Charge. In Hybrid mode, the electric motor feeds from both the battery and the fuel cell, with the latter running in its optimum efficiency range.

In F-Cell mode, the motor draws its power from the fuel cell, thus reserving battery power.

In Battery mode, the vehicle runs off the battery, which is ideal for short trips.

Finally, Charge mode uses the fuel cell to top up the battery while driving to create power reserves for an uphill climb or fast driving or to simply fill the battery while nearing to a hydrogen refuelling station.

Mercedes says it has applied unprecedented safety engineering to the GLC F-Cell to ensure all components – especially the hydrogen tanks and the lithium-ion battery under the floor of the boot – are protected in a crash.

The vehicle will draw waste heat from the fuel cell to help warm the car on cold days, while cooling is all-electric.

Design wise, the fuel-cell vehicle on show at Frankfurt is mostly conventional GLC, in contrast to some of the far-out fuel-cell car designs from competitors.

Unlike full-electric vehicles with their closed grilles to aid aerodynamics, the F-Cell has large front air vents to help cool the fuel-cell stack. Of course, blue trim – the hallmark of environmentally friendly cars – abounds on the grille, side skirts, wheels and elsewhere.

Unlike Australia, Germany and California are pressing on with networks of hydrogen refuelling stations. Germany’s H2 Mobility consortium has plans to complete 100 filling stations by the end of 2018, with a further 300 by 2023.

California has 31 refuelling stations to date, with another 29 in the pipeline.

Honda and Toyota this week announced that they had received a $US16 million ($A20m) handout from the government to build seven more refuelling stations in the Bay Area, around San Francisco.

Last year, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government announced the purchase of 20 next-generation fuel-cell vehicles from Hyundai, to be powered in Canberra by hydrogen made by Siemens from electricity from a South Australian wind farm at Hornsdale.

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