Is hydrogen the key to a sustainable transport system? An interview with Philippe Rosier, CEO, Symbio

rethink sustainability

Is hydrogen the key to a sustainable transport system? An interview with Philippe Rosier, CEO, Symbio

Interview published on https://lombardodier.lesechos.fr/ on 26 February 2021

Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity by creating an electrochemical reaction and not combustion. In a fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen are combined in order to produce electricity, water and heat1. This process could very well be the missing link in our journey to a sustainable transport system. Why? Because there are no carbon emissions and the tanks are quick to fill. So does this mean tomorrow's vehicles will run on hydrogen and, if so, when? We get some answers from Philippe Rosier, the CEO of Symbio, a joint subsidiary of Michelin and Faurecia that specialises in fuel cells.

For the transport sector to make a successful energy transition, we have to develop electromobility

We’re increasingly associating fuel cells or hydrogen batteries with future mobility. Why's that?

For the transport sector to make a successful energy transition, we have to develop electromobility. But only hydrogen technology – which is electric and by nature emission-free – currently fulfils the needs of drivers who use their vehicles frequently and need to recharge quickly. Hydrogen-powered vehicles have a similar range to cars that run on petrol and at least double that of battery-only electric vehicles. And best of all, "filling up with hydrogen" takes only a few minutes, just like refuelling with petrol. Hydrogen vehicles are able to communicate the temperature of their tanks to the pump in order to optimise the filling speed. Thus, this technology offers all the advantages of combustion engines but with zero emissions.

So why aren't we seeing more hydrogen vehicles?

We are currently in the start-up phase – there are only 25,000 hydrogen vehicles in operation worldwide mainly in South Korea, Japan and California. Most of these are "captive fleets" – vehicles that return to the same hydrogen station every day. This means they can be used without having to wait for the area to develop a joined-up network of hydrogen stations. In France, we're mainly talking about light commercial vehicles, like the Renault Kangoo Hydrogen and PSA's first utility vehicles, which will be launched this year and are being equipped by Symbio, our company. The bus industry is one of the first markets where hydrogen is being used. For example, Symbio equips the buses manufactured by Safra. The same can be said for saloons that are being used as taxis. Take Hype for example. It operates over 100 Toyota Mirais in Paris. Next to come on board will be vehicles that require adapted infrastructure, such as trucks and privately owned cars. It's just a matter of time before hydrogen technology is widespread. Its growth will be exponential in the coming years.

It's just a matter of time before hydrogen technology is widespread. Its growth will be exponential in the coming years

So you're optimistic…

Everything points to this happening. The momentum is there, as we can see from hydrogen plans unveiled in European countries, the ambitions shown in Asia, and the announcements by US President, Joe Biden. China, for example, is planning to produce more than a million hydrogen vehicles by 2030, and South Korea is aiming for 3 million by 2040. The Hydrogen Council estimates that by 2050, hydrogen vehicles will account for 40-50% of vans and lorries and more than 50% of buses, coaches and large saloon cars.

 

France has announced it will invest more than 7 billion euros in this technology by 2030. Given such a large investment, what can we expect in the long run? Fuel cells powering large aircraft?

Absolutely. Hydrogen-powered aircraft will become a reality by around 2040. Hydrogen mobility will be accessible to all by then, thanks to two factors. Firstly, the cost of producing hydrogen fuel cells and tanks, which at the moment account for more than 60% of a vehicle's value, will have plummeted, thanks to rising volumes. And secondly, many countries in Europe, Asia and parts of North America will have enough hydrogen stations to enable everyone to go on holiday and fill up on the way. That's the prerequisite for hydrogen mobility becoming mainstream. We expect there to be more than 1,000 stations operating in Europe by 2030.

 

Electric batteries attract criticism due to their environmental impact. What about the environmental situation with your technology?

Hydrogen fuel cells mainly contain steel, a fluorinated proton membrane and a little platinum. The value of platinum is very high, so manufacturers recycle about 95% of it. The recycling loop is well-known and already in place for catalytic converters.

 

Has the level of investment changed in the last five years and what do you envision going forward?

We are clearly witnessing a change of scale, on both a public and a private level. France's first hydrogen plan in 2018 – known as the "Hulot Plan" – was worth around 100 million euros. The one announced last September, as you mentioned earlier, has a budget of 7 billion euros. It's the same at company level, and Symbio is proof of this: it has quickly morphed from a start-up into a joint venture owned by two world-class equipment manufacturers, Michelin and Faurecia. Our ambition is to generate sales of more than 1 billion euros by 2030. Energy companies have also been announcing green hydrogen production projects on an unprecedented scale, and the market is supporting this trend – the IPO of HRS was spectacular!

These changes are due to a long-term trend among public and private players to embrace the energy transition, thanks to falling prices of renewable energy

These changes are due to a long-term trend among public and private players to embrace the energy transition, thanks to falling prices of renewable energy. Public players are wielding regulation as a stick and dangling aid as a carrot. Private players, meanwhile, are aiming to develop their production for mass markets in order to lower costs and remain competitive. Symbio is a perfect example of this trend: our future factory, which is set to open in the Greater Lyon area in 2023, will be one of the largest in Europe, with an annual production capacity of 60,000 hydrogen fuel cells. By 2030, this will have risen to 200,000 a year.

 

https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/fuel-cell-animation-text-version

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