Cellcentric new plant building
Cellcentric Canada, with 70 employees at a new plant in Burnaby, is making components for next-generation fuel cell systems to power heavy-duty trucks. Photo: Cellcentric

Cellcentric Canada, with 70 employees at a new plant in Burnaby, is making components for next-generation fuel cell systems to power heavy-duty trucks

Editor’s Note: This article was updated Mar. 7, 2023, to add the full names of Volvo Group and Daimler Trucks.

In commercial transportation circles, there is no bigger annual exhibition than IAA Transportation in Germany. That meant last fall’s event, in Hanover, was the perfect coming out moment for Cellcentric, a German-headquartered joint venture with a critical Canadian connection.

Cellcentric was forged in 2021 by two of Europe’s leading heavy-duty truck makers: Volvo Group and Daimler Trucks. Cellcentric’s mission is to develop, produce and commercialize fuel systems for heavy-duty trucks. At IAA last fall, it debuted its “new generation” fuel cell system, a 150-kW power plant boasting a service life equal to that of “a conventional diesel unit in long-distance use.”

The prototype unit came out of Cellcentric’s headquarters in Stuttgart. But its key components are the hydrogen fuel cells and fuel cell stacks. They are made at the new Cellcentric fuel cell manufacturing plant in Burnaby, B.C.

Opened last summer, the 56,000-square-foot facility employs 70 people.

Ballard origins

Burnaby is, of course, home to Ballard Power Systems. B.C. has developed a cluster of fuel cell expertise around Ballard over the past three decades. In fact, much of the technology and talent behind Cellcentric’s Burnaby operation has roots in a couple of Ballard spinoffs.

One even occupied a wing in Ballard’s headquarters until Cellcentric’s new facility was built.

Cellcentric has not yet entered commercial production. But the Burnaby operation has been able to increase its output as a result of the move, says Andrea Engelen, CEO of Cellcentric Canada, in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.

“We take advantage and utilize the extended capacity,” Engelen says. “It’s very inspiring for all our employees, they are very proud to have this new facility.”

As the company explains it, a fuel cell stack is a grouping of fuel cells connected in series, with different power output potential depending on the configuration. Once the stacks are made in Burnaby, they go to Germany. They are integrated with other system components and assembly begins on the complete units (like the one displayed at IAA Transportation).

In its presentation there, Cellcentric said it envisions combining two of the 150 kW units in a single truck. That would result in a net total output of 300 kW, for use in long-distance operations. “The geometry of the unit is based on the usual installation spaces of diesel engines, so that two units can be installed in the engine compartments of heavy-duty commercial vehicles,” reads a description on the Cellcentric website.

When the Cellcentric joint venture launched in 2021, the partners said their goal was to begin system trials in heavy-duty trucks by 2025. As such, the Burnaby facility anticipates expansion to match a ramp up of production in Germany over that time span.

Co-existing with battery solutions

Individually, both Volvo Group and Daimler Trucks have started manufacturing battery-powered heavy-duty trucks. However, Cellcentric is a recognition that fuel-cell-powered trucks also have a place in the mix when it comes to decarbonizing long-distance transportation.

“If you have really heavy loads, you will need so many batteries to drive that it wouldn’t really make sense,” Engelen says. “It’s costly and takes away a lot of the space where you can actually load your products.”

She also says fuel cells have the advantage of not relying on a battery charge or the electric grid.

“It’s important, at this time, to use both alternative technologies to create cleaner technology worldwide.”

Cellcentric fuel cell motor
At IAA Transportation last fall, Cellcentric debuted its “new generation” fuel cell system, a 150-kW power plant. Photo: Cellcentric