Dr. Gerhard Schmidt is steering Ford Motor Company down the hydrogen highway.
As vice president, research and advanced engineering for Ford, Dr. Gerhard Schmidt leads a 1,300-strong worldwide research organization in Dearborn, Mich., and Aachen, Germany. Since joining Ford in April 2001, Dr. Schmidt has been responsible for overseeing the planning, development and implementation of the company’s top global technology objectives.
Prior to Ford, Dr. Schmidt served as senior vice president vehicle integration at BMW AG and spent 10 years as senior vice president powertrain development for the German automaker. During his 21 years at BMW, Dr. Schmidt held a wide range of leadership roles in engine research and development.
Dr. Schmidt received his degree in mechanical engineering in 1971 from the University of Aachen in Germany and his Ph.D. in Investigations on Stratified Charge — Internal Combustion Engines in 1979 from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Aachen. One of Dr. Schmidt’s current priorities is navigating the company’s course towards a hydrogen economy.
Q. You are a member of California’s Hydrogen Highway panel. How do you see the hydrogen economy unfolding as it relates to the automotive world?
A. In California there is a spread between very ambitious short-term targets with the hydrogen highway project and more conservative Department of Energy (DoE) long-term goals. The DoE expects the start of commercialization in 2015, while the hydrogen highway is looking at 2010.
Either way it’s building up and progress depends on how many hydrogen gas stations are built. The original plan was for up to 200 hydrogen stations, one every 20 miles on the highways.
Many different factors will define how fast we can be. It will have to go step by step with building up the infrastructure and developing the cars. Because having 100,000 cars without a hydrogen infrastructure doesn’t make sense and neither does having the infrastructure without the cars.
Q. Do you see certain countries or areas of the world being ahead of others in their progress toward a hydrogen economy?
A. There will be some states and some nations that will be leaders because of specific circumstances. I don’t know if it would make sense to start with a hydrogen infrastructure going from Detroit to Chicago, which would not produce much benefit. But I think it would make sense to start in those narrow, crowded downtown areas in some mega cities — in China or Japan or some European areas — because it is easier to build up the infrastructure than in wide-open spaces.
Q. What do you think of Japan’s progress towards establishing a hydrogen infrastructure?
A. I think Japan, because of its dependency on fossil energy imports, is very motivated to look for alternative energy and to take a leadership role in introducing hydrogen.
Q. It seems that Europe is being relatively slow in moving toward a hydrogen economy, perhaps because of the emphasis on diesel engine technology?
A. BMW has concentrated on hydrogenfueled internal combustion engines for many years and at Ford we are also working with hydrogen IC engines. There are two reasons why it makes sense for BMW, and also for us. There is a huge investment in internal combustion and I don’t expect to throw it away overnight. Therefore, for a long time, we will have a migration between emerging technology fuel cells and the existing technology in internal combustion engines. At the same time we have to build up our hydrogen infrastructure. In the beginning, we won’t have too many fuel cell vehicles but we’ll have a huge number of internal combustion engines. Therefore, this could be an enabler and a bridging technology, because having a gas station without a customer is not much good for energy providers.
Q. But are European OEMs being slow to adopt fuel cell technology?
A. Overall I would agree, Europe is a little slower than Japan or the U.S., although there are some European community-based fuel cell programs starting, which we plan to support. It’s not any more a local question because many of these auto companies are global. The thing is that we don’t intend to develop the same technology in many different places at the same time and spend five times the money. We’ll concentrate on one area. Here in Dearborn we are the center of expertise for fuel cell development and for hybrid development.
Q. In what technical respects do you see hybrid vehicle development as a stepping stone to fuel cells?
A. We call them building blocks. First we have the battery, which is basically the same between the hybrid and the fuel cell vehicle. And when we talk about regenerative braking we use basically the same system with the same supplier. Also from the control side, it’s not absolutely identical, but many of the algorithms we are developing for the fuel cell are used by the hybrid and vice versa.
The other synergy between the hydrogen ICE and the fuel cell vehicle is the tank storage system. The safety requirements, the pipes and hoses are all the same.
Q. What do you view as the main barriers left to overcome for fuel cell vehicles?
A. Unfortunately there is not only one barrier. The first issue is creating, distributing and storing hydrogen. It’s still not decided where the hydrogen comes from — is it steam reforming, is it electrolyzing, is it renewable energy, wind power, solar power? The good thing is that we have many feed stocks, which is a unique advantage. The next problem is storage. Still today we are using pressurized hydrogen; most of the industry is using 350 bar storage, with about four kilograms of stored hydrogen. So the range is not so good. With liquid hydrogen, there are pros and cons. Energy storage is a little bit higher but there are some unique challenges with boil-off problems. Then there is the question of transporting hydrogen to filling stations.
Q. Which on-board storage solution do you think is the most promising?
A. I’m still convinced the high-pressure solutions are the most credible for at least the first 10 years of the hydrogen economy. It could be we would have some breakthrough in nanocarbon tubes or some exotic new storage media, but this is more in the research area today. Therefore, for the first 10 years when we start in 2010 or 2015, I think we’ll mainly depend on high pressure. Q. Your Focus FCVs are hybrids. Do you believe batteries will be necessary in FCVs in the future? A. The ideal would be that the fuel cell delivers exactly the right amount of electricity as needed, but to have some buffer has proven to be the smart strategy.
Q. What areas of current FCVs need the most refinement?
A. The technical issues you can solve. In cold-start capability I think we have already made progress — also with normal driving attributes. I have driven our products and the competitors’ and there has been significant progress over recent years. The attributes I think we’ll be able to handle. There will be some further progress necessary on the durability and reliability but the real challenge will be to bring down the costs.
Q. What opportunities are there for automotive suppliers in the FCV field?
A. I think in the whole sensor area. It’s a new field — there are not many companies active in support of this area. Also, in the controllers there is an opportunity for engineering/ logic software developers. And of course, materials, like the stack materials.
Q. What about cooling suppliers?
A. This is a new wonderland for the HVAC suppliers because FCVs today require larger radiators than for internal combustion engines. Also because there are no drive belts for all the accessories, we are looking at electric AC system and other electrical components.
Dr. Gerhard Schmidt is steering Ford Motor Company down the hydrogen highway.