In an effort to overcome one of the main drawbacks of battery electric vehicles, Volvo is initiating development of a hydrogen fuel cell that is expected to increase an electric car’s operating range by up to 250 km (155 miles). In the first phase of the project the company, together with Powercell Sweden AB, will conduct a study into a Range Extender, which consists of a fuel cell with a reformer that breaks down a liquid fuel – in this case petrol – to create hydrogen gas. The fuel cell then converts the hydrogen gas into electrical energy to power the car’s electric motor.

The fuel cell would generate electricity without any emissions of carbon oxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx) and particles. The only end products are electricity, water and a small amount of carbon dioxide. The technology can also be adapted for renewable fuels. The reformer’s ability to break down existing liquid fuels provide a distinct advantage over other hydrogen fuel cell vehicles such as Honda’s FCX Clarity, which can use a standalone Home Energy Station unit to produce hydrogen for the car to cater for current lack hydrogen distribution infrastructure.

"This is an exciting expansion of our focus on electrification. Battery cost and size means that all-electric cars still have a relatively limited operating range. Fuel cells may be one way of extending the distance these cars can cover before they need to be recharged. What is more, the project gives us increased knowledge about fuel cells and hydrogen gas," says Volvo Cars President and CEO Stefan Jacoby.

In the second phase of the project, Volvo and Powercell aim to produce two test cars based on the current C30 DRIVe Electric that will be ready for testing in everyday traffic in 2012.

"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.