Hydrogen, a key technology for carbon-free transport
The COP 23 reminds us of the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Transport, which is responsible for 23% of worldwide CO2 emissions, is at the forefront of concerns. To reduce these emissions by 95% the only solution is massive electrification of all methods of transport. This would also result in a drastic improvement in air quality, by removing emissions of nitrous oxide and fine particles emitted notably by diesel vehicles.
In this respect, battery electric vehicles and hydrogen vehicles are complementary. However, for the whole world to adopt electric motorisation, it must be practical to use for people travelling whilst at the same time reconciling “zero emissions”, “driver comfort” and “flexibility in use”. The hydrogen fuel cell is a key technology in achieving this.
Hydrogen takes electric vehicles further
Today two major defects handicap most electric vehicles: their limited autonomy – between 100 and 300km depending on conditions – and the time required for fully recharging the batteries, which is about 8 hours, depending on the model. These major constraints restrict these vehicles to specific usages, such as short journeys in urban areas or home-work journeys within a limited radius.
Hydrogen technology removes these limitations. How does the hydrogen fuel cell work? In contact with hydrogen, oxygen is used to produce electricity and water (this is how the fuel cell works). There are two advantages to this technology: it relies on hydrogen, which is one of the most abundant elements on the planet, and during operation it emits only water vapour.
In addition, a hydrogen electric vehicle can cover a distance, without stopping, comparable to that of a vehicle with an internal combustion engine - 500 to 600km. As for recharging, filling up with hydrogen at a dedicated service station takes only 3 to 5 minutes. This is a real benefit: there is no need for the vehicle to remain stationary at a recharging station. Another advantage is that the public electricity supply is not affected. When one considers that, according to certain energy specialists, the electricity supply to 1 million battery-run electric vehicles would require the equivalent of the production from a nuclear power station, this is no small detail.
Inset: Hydrogen, 100% clean?
Although a vehicle running on a hydrogen fuel cell emits neither pollutant nor CO2, what about its manufacture, and what about production of the H2 (dihydrogen) necessary for it to operate? A hydrogen fuel cell requires rare metals such as platinum, but only in quantities equivalent to those needed to manufacture a catalytic converter for a combustion engine vehicle (note that a hydrogen vehicle does not require a catalytic converter)…. With regard to the production of hydrogen, there are two methods. Today over 90% of hydrogen production is done from hydrocarbons, using the steam reforming method. This is an inexpensive process but one which generates greenhouse gas emissions. The second method is completely carbon-free: it consists of producing hydrogen by means of electrolysis of water, using renewable energies (e.g. solar, wind power). This method, which is currently less common and therefore more expensive is starting to expand and should become more competitive in the near future.
Michelin and hydrogen: 15 years of history
Hydrogen ticks all the boxes in terms of Michelin’s vision of sustainable mobility: it eliminates emissions of CO2, improves air quality and promotes energy transition, whilst adapting to every type of usage. It is because of these characteristics that we have been working on this energy source for over 15 years.
For the hydrogen fuel cell to become a real mobility solution, several conditions have to be in place. The technology involved is technologically mature but further perfecting will result in even greater efficiency and reliability. The mobilisation of all industrial and institutional stakeholders, throughout the whole of the value chain is required in order to make it accessible everywhere and for every mode of transport. Finally, sufficient density of the network of hydrogen refilling infrastructure must be in place. Through its involvement and its commitment to the ecosystem, alongside both public and private stakeholders, Michelin is working simultaneously on all these points.
The 15 years of work already done by our R&D teams mean that we have now mastered the technology of the hydrogen fuel cell, making Michelin a credible, legitimate partner in this field. As a shareholder since 2014, we work with Symbio FCell, an innovative French SMB, creator of the first hydrogen range extender. This can be used to convert any electric vehicle into an electric/hydrogen hybrid, encouraging rapid adoption of this technology, without having to wait for new models to be brought out. Our subsidiary IMECA is working with Symbio FCell on the industrialisation of this technology. In 2016 Engie joined us in the capital of Symbio, bringing with it its expertise in the carbon-free production of hydrogen and in distribution infrastructures. More widely, we are a committed, unifying player within the sector. We are members of the Hydrogen Europe FCHJU, which groups at European level all industries, research and national associations; of the Association Française pour l’Hydrogène et les Piles à Combustible (AFHYPAC); of AVERE, an association which works on the deployment of electric mobility and of Tenerrdis, a competitiveness centre for many stakeholders in the hydrogen energy sector. We have also given our full support to the “Zero Emission Valley” project in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, which is seeking to become the “spearhead” region in terms of hydrogen mobility at European level and which, with this project, is seeking to boost hydrogen mobility. With this project, the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region wants to deploy 20 hydrogen stations and a fleet of 1000 vehicles between now and 2020. Economically speaking it is a question of anticipating and preparing the solutions of the future before going on to deploy them internationally.
Finally, true to our habit of using competitive racing to push the limits of a technology still further, we are partners of Green GT, which produces the only electric hydrogen racing vehicle. By putting the hydrogen fuel cell up against the extreme conditions encountered in endurance races, we will be in a position to offer future customers every guarantee of safety and performance.
Europe, land of growth for hydrogen
Today Japan, Korea and China are all one step ahead in terms of hydrogen. Several manufacturers from these countries already have commercial models on the market. All these countries have implemented a favourable tax regime or highly incentivised subsidy programmes. China has decided to implement quotas and to reserve purchase subsidies, up until now available for all electric vehicles, for hydrogen vehicles only.
Somewhat behind Asia, Europe is now accelerating. More and more companies are now committing to this technology and are ready to make investments. The French sector, for example, is now operational. It has implemented a strategy of simultaneous deployment of vehicles and recharging stations, by targeting those regions where potential has been demonstrated. This means that, at local level, hydrogen vehicles can be on the road without delay, whilst the foundations of a future national network are being laid.