At the Paris Motor Show last month, Volvo announced that their C30 electric model was ready for delivery. But, the company is already adding a major new feature – a PEM fuel cell “range extender” with a gasoline reformer – that could put this car above and beyond the rest.
First, I should note that the basic C30 model currently can be found on Sweden’s roads, where Volvo has leased 90 cars to track how the vehicle manages the rigors of everyday use. While this test group is supposed to add insights for additional refinements to the C30, the fuel-cell assistance option is going to be a big leap, one that Volvo chief executive officer Stefan Jacoboy says, and ultimately lead to a product that, “sets the standard in the industry.” The full launch is expected in 2013.
Cars with fuel cells aren’t novel by themselves. Toyoto, for example, demonstrated a model at ACerS’ “Materials Innovations in an Emerging Hydrogen Economy” conference in 2008. But, practically speaking, these efforts haven’t gone far: The classic fuel-cell-in-auto dilemma arises because it is based on a paradigm that imagines having to refuel the vehicles with hydrogen, much the same way cars are now get a gasoline fill up. With no hydrogen distribution network, the concept collapses.
Volvo’s solution, however, is to leverage the existing gasoline infrastructure: Feed gasoline into a reformer, strip off the hydrogen and then pump the hydrogen into the PEM.
Volvo says it building two C30s prototypes equipped with the fuel cells and hopes to have them road-ready by 2012. These prototypes are being developed with technical assistance from Powercell Sweden AB and financial assistance from the Swedish Energy Agency. Volvo is the main shareholder in Powercell, and the Swedish government last year also began to invest in the company.
All fuel cells types have their unique problems, including the more ceramic-oriented solid-oxide fuel cell. For PEMs, the problems have been things such as a low tolerance for carbon monoxide or the drying of membranes. Powercell claims its technology resolves the CO problem.
Volvo anticipates that these fuel cell units will provide the C30 with at least 155 miles of additional range.
The company isn’t ready to bet all its chips on the fuel cell option. “We have just taken the first steps and it is naturally too early to talk about market introduction of electric cars with range extenders. The industrial decision will come after we have learned more about fuel cells and the opportunities they offer,” says Jacoby.
Volvo first presented a drivable electric C30 prototype in September 2009, which we introduced here. The newest design includes lithium-ion battery, and no gears. Top speed is estimated by Volvo at 81 mph, with acceleration from 0-60 mph in under 11 seconds. The all-electric range will be up to 93 miles. A completely depleted battery takes about eight hours to recharge.
This crash test (briefly shown in the video above) shows battery location under the car, marked in green, and how the car withstands a 30 mph head on collision. It’s amazing to watch – the battery barely budges at all.