Van Hool sets out the future with the hydrogen bus

For many years, Van Hool's focus has been on top quality, decent products. Over the past few years, environmental care and energy-efficiency have become a valued, integrated quality aspect that customers have come to expect.

"As long as there is a combination with a fuel cell or gas such as LPG or CNG, electric vehicles are the most important innovation for public transport."

"For some time now, our customers have shown a clear shift towards zero emissions. We are sure that this is not a passing trend in the sector but that this evolution will continue throughout the coming 10 years. Van Hool has been treading this path for a while now", explains Paul Jenné. "Consider our electric trolley buses, our hybrid buses, buses on LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) and CNG (Compressed Natural Gas), better known as natural gas."

"All of the usual alternative forms of energy are encompassed within our portfolio."

"Why do we do this? First and foremost, as a result of the developments within the international market in which Van Hool is active. But also for purely economic reasons, this is the only option for a Belgian bus builder.

Production at Belgian wage rates is only possible if you are a leading light in the top product segment. You must develop and export the very best technological products that are 'made in Belgium'."

When it comes to hydrogen, Van Hool supplied the first hydrogen buses to the US in 2005; these were primarily delivered to the state of California. The customer was delighted with the comfort and design of the buses but wanted the diesel engine replaced by an electrical drive, supported by fuel cells. The analysis made at the time was that electrification was the major innovation pathway for the future of public transport, in combination with a fuel cell. Thanks to the experience gained with the American market, Van Hool gained a competitive advantage with this environmentally-friendly solution. The entire development process was a very positive experience. Van Hool recognised an opportunity to develop this experience and know-how in terms of a version for the European market. In Europe, the regulations regarding round axle and vehicle weights are stricter. Another important difference is that the fuel cell technology requires collaboration with other technology partners.

In terms of energy transition, the public transport company De Lijn has been working on gaining pace for some time. There may be many diesel engines in development but Euro 5 and Euro 6 were setting the standard long before there was any legislation enforcing this. De Lijn was also the first company with around 100 hybrid buses of various varieties. The European version of the hydrogen bus ran for a two-year trial in the Netherlands, Spain and also with De Lijn in Flanders. After these tests, project proposals were submitted to the EU for further realisation. These orders in the EU are encompassed within subsidy projects (so-called Joint Undertakings via Frame Work programme 7) which aim to support the objectives in relation to energy (independence from energy sources) and the environment (reduction of CO2 and emissions by use of zero emission technology and renewable sources). Since 2012, there have been 150 hydrogen buses in operation across the world; 70 of these have been developed and produced by Van Hool. They are being used in the US (California and Connecticut), Norway (Oslo), Scotland, the Netherlands, Belgium (De Lijn Antwerp) and Italy (San Remo). These are city buses that are in operation for 16 hours per day in various climates and commercial circumstances.

The biggest challenge in the entire development process was legislation. In the context of safety, buses are subject to masses of regulations in relation to capacity, doors, speed, axle-weight, overall weight, etc. And there is another set of regulations with respect to hydrogen. The most important concern is that hydrogen is never allowed to enter the passenger compartment of the vehicle. In order to avoid every vehicle having to undergo a thorough procedure in order to obtain approval, Van Hool has been through an FMEA study (Failure Mode and Effect Analysis) conducted by TÜV.

"Another challenge is, of course, the technology. All of the functions are electric and have to be harmonised with one another; as a result, the entire drive had to be reviewed."

Omdat er algemeen een groeiende belangstelling is voor waterstofbussen, hebben vijf busproducenten (OEMs of Original Equipment Manufacturers) in november 2014 een 'Memorandum of Understanding' getekend waarmee ze hun engagement tegenover waterstoftechnologie willen uitdrukken.

The fact that there is a growing interest in hydrogen buses led to five bus producers (OEMs or Original Equipment Manufacturers) signing up to a Memorandum of Understanding in November 2014, and thus demonstrating their engagement with hydrogen technology.

The primary advantage for the passengers is that a bus with an electric drive is much quieter than a conventional bus because the combustion motor is replaced by a fuel cell that converts hydrogen into electricity using a chemical process. A fuel cell does not produce any sound due to it not incorporating any mechanical parts.In addition, there is no discharge at the outlet point. With an electric drive, the emission of fine particulates, CO2 or NOx is zero and this offers huge benefits in an urban environment in terms of air quality. In contrast to other forms of electric traction (trolley buses or battery-charging systems), hydrogen is also very flexible. A bus can operate for 16 to 18 hours without refuelling and drivers find it easy to familiarise themselves with the vehicle. The bus behaves very similarly to a diesel bus. The bus also bas better acceleration due to its electric drive, and this permits a large percentage of braking energy to be recuperated and stored in the battery.

But there are still many challenges. Where does hydrogen come from? How green is it? In the future, will recharging the batteries at bus stops become more business-friendly (inductive charging via a magnetic field, for example)? And how can you guarantee the service package for new technologies? The fact that the fuel cell forms an enclosed unit means that work cannot be carried out in a regular workplace. As is the case with hybrid buses, Van Hool carries out specialist interventions itself. The training package for carrying out minor interventions and diagnostics is also broader than for a diesel bus. The service package must be thoroughly elaborated on the basis of the end-user's expertise (familiarity with electrical traction).

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