The founding team of Buses4Future in front of a hydrogen filling station
KfW Entrepreneurs' Award

KfW Entrepreneurs' Award

Clean in every respect

In Germany, local public transport moves some ten billion passengers a year from point A to B. Noisy diesel buses are operated in many places, emitting harmful nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and carbon dioxide. Buses4Future shows that there is another way: the start-up has developed hydrogen buses that can bring about a change in the transport sector. The company was singled out as the state winner of the KfW Entrepreneurs’ Award for Lower Saxony in 2020.

Video: local visit at Buses4Future (KfW Group/n-tv). This video is only available in German.

The twelve-metre-long bus leaves the bus depot in Münster, North Rhine-Westphalia, with surprisingly little noise. It will travel 350 kilometres today, emitting no exhaust, just a small puff of water vapour. The fuel cells in its interior are responsible for this.

“The future belongs to hydrogen!” says Dr Hans Hermann Schreier, Managing Director of Buses4Future GmbH. His company leased the city bus to the Münster utility company. It has been easily integrated into the fleet and runs just as reliably as the other 200 buses in the region. The only difference is that it doesn’t refuel at the usual diesel pump, but is filled with hydrogen for ten minutes every morning.

The bus is not entirely new, it has already been used on a trial basis in the Netherlands. SuperSurf was the name of the project Hans Hermann Schreier and his wife Susanne were involved in. In this project, they developed high-precision optical measuring systems for hydrogen fuel cells – necessary to ensure they are produced with consistently high quality. After the project ended, the Schreiers took over one of the buses and launched Buses4Future GmbH in Oldenburg together with their Dutch colleagues Jochem Huygen and Dr Theo Hendriks.

A look inside the engine of a fuel cell bus

In the fuel cells, hydrogen with oxygen produces cold combustion that drives an electric motor. No harmful emissions are produced in the process.

Hydrogen is making headway

The team of entrepreneurs would like to convert public transport in Germany to hydrogen. The odds are in their favour. Municipalities are extremely interested because hydrogen is considered the first choice for environmentally friendly mobility concepts and is also extensively subsidised. “Diesel has been phased out for legal reasons. Battery-operated buses can only travel 200 kilometres and take a long time to charge. We estimate that about 30 per cent of buses will be equipped with fuel cells in the future,” explains Hans Hermann Schreier.

Buses4Future is ready for this. More hydrogen buses are slated to be purchased soon in North Rhine-Westphalia. Negotiations on the roll-out are underway with around ten other municipalities. “We are preaching to the converted,” says Schreier. The proof of concept for market entry in Germany, i.e. the proof that the business concept can be implemented, is unlikely to be a problem. Another advantage: the company not only provides the buses, but also offers a turnkey planning package and strategic partners. If components are missing, Buses4Future helps to provide them. This could be the installation of a hydrogen refuelling station or a suitable supplier. Here, the aim is to cooperate with producers of “green” hydrogen. It will come from renewable sources such as solar panels, wind turbines or biogas plants, which are abundant in Lower Saxony.

But how does hydrogen propulsion work exactly? Process engineer Susanne Schreier explains: “Fuel cells are made of high-quality carbonic material. A cell is comprised of two bi-polar plates, each as large as a sheet of A4 paper. Between them is a platinum-coated membrane that acts as a catalyst. If hydrogen and air are now added, electrons are exchanged, and cold combustion occurs.” The electricity generated this way drives an electric motor for a vehicle. Part of the electricity is stored in a battery for when the bus temporarily needs more energy, for example, to drive uphill. As many as 40 of these cells are grouped together in what are known as stacks and installed in the bus. Unlike a car, the size and weight of the stacks play a minor role. More important is durability – a city bus is designed for a service life of at least twelve years during which it travels more than a million kilometres.

Learn more under the image gallery.

The founding team of Buses4Future in front of a hydrogen filling station

With their name, the founders refer to the Fridays For Future movement because they, too, commit themselves to a climate-friendly future.

Experience and commitment

74-year-old Hans Hermann Schreier is a passionate entrepreneur. After successfully establishing several companies of his own and even taking one public, he found the idea of a quiet retirement inconceivable “You get old and decrepit,” he says with a laugh. Susanne Schreier is also over 60 and has headed up her own company, the same goes for their co-founders Jochem Huygen and Theo Hendriks. Still, they didn’t just launch a business over dinner.

The team was given a spot in the “Start-up Accelerator GO!” in Oldenburg to further develop the concept. A start-up scholarship was also part of the promotional programme. “I didn’t get a grant for my studies at the time and now I have a scholarship from the government! This is a great tribute to our work,” says Hans Hermann Schreier.

The GmbH was formed in autumn 2019. The further development is financed by seed capital from the NBank. The start-up entrepreneurs and the prospective contracts from several German cities immediately convinced Lower Saxony’s promotional bank. Furthermore, a private strategic investor from the alternative energy sector has expressed interest in sustainably financing the expansion.

KfW Entrepreneurs’ Award

In November 2020, the KfW Entrepreneurs’ Award was presented to 16 state winners and one national winner in recognition of their business ideas. Two special prizes were also awarded. Applications for the next award can be submitted starting 1 April 2021.

Shape and change

At their company headquarters in the co-working space of the Oldenburg Technology and Start-up Centre, the couple stand out – most of the people here are half their age. Nevertheless, both sides learn a lot from each other and are engaged in a lively dialogue. “We are the ‘overhead transparency’ generation. We have drafted projects worth millions with a pen on these transparencies. And now all of a sudden we needed pitch decks, something we’d never done before,” says Susanne Schreier and divulges that they did hire professionals to create them.

Buses4Future intentionally references the Fridays for Future movement with its company name. As school pupils and students, the Schreiers were often at demonstrations against the educational wasteland, cuts in grants or the Startbahn West runway at the Frankfurt airport. Today, tackling climate change is their biggest concern. “Protesting is good, but at some point you have to act. And why shouldn’t it be us?” they say.

Buses4Future is now scaling up sales, with at least 200 buses to be sold over the next four years. KfW’s distinguished prize is a very good way to raise its profile. It has generated a great deal of press coverage and many enquiries. At the same time, this quality award helps the company to acquire partners.

It is obvious that the entrepreneurial couple gets a kick out of their work and it clearly keeps them young. If they do decide to retire, there are many qualified people in their network who could carry on their work. Buses4Future is therefore one of the very few companies that is already thinking about a successor at the time of its foundation.

Published on KfW Stories: 9 February 2021.