Michelin: Hydrogen ‘ticks all the boxes’ for sustainable mobility

A priority at the COP 23 climate change conference now being held in Germany is to emphasise the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Transport, which is responsible for 23 per cent of worldwide CO2 emissions, is at the forefront of concerns. Electromobility is generously served up as an elixir on occasions such as this, however battery driven electric cars remain a niche market. An alternate form of electric propulsion, one that many in the UK first saw when James May tested the Honda FCX Clarity on Top Gear back in 2008, may hold the key to the door of high volume uptake. This is hydrogen fuel cell, a technology that tyre maker Michelin actively supports.

Commenting that hydrogen “ticks all the boxes in terms of Michelin’s vision of sustainable mobility,” the tyre maker sees the technology as a means of overcoming the limitations currently associated with electromobility. These well-known shortcomings are battery range and recharging time, constraints that effectively restrict battery electric vehicles to urban use and short commutes. Hydrogen technology removes these limitations; at up to around 375 miles, a hydrogen electric vehicle’s range is comparable to that of a petrol vehicle, and filling up with hydrogen at a dedicated service station takes only three to five minutes. A further advantage is that filling up a hydrogen electric vehicle doesn’t place a burden upon the local electricity grid.

Hydrogen fuel cells operate by bringing hydrogen in contact with oxygen to produce electricity and water. Neither CO2 nor other pollutants are emitted whilst a fuel cell is running, however Michelin comments that the H2 (dihydrogen) needed for operation is still typically produced using a method that generates greenhouse gases. More than 90 per cent of hydrogen is produced from hydrocarbons using the steam reforming method. Although this is an inexpensive process, Michelin notes that hydrogen can also be produced in an entirely carbon-free way by means of electrolysis of water, using renewable energies such as solar or wind power.

Three countries – Japan, Korea and China – currently lead the world in terms of hydrogen. Several manufacturers from these countries already have commercial models on the market, and all three countries have implemented a favourable tax regime or highly incentivised subsidy programmes for hydrogen. Europe currently lags behind Asia, however activities here are accelerating, and more and more companies are now committing to this technology and are ready to make investments – Michelin is just one of these.

Research and development teams at Michelin have worked with hydrogen as an energy source for more than 15 years. The company claims it has “mastered the technology of the hydrogen fuel cell.” As a shareholder since 2014 and main shareholder as of last year, Michelin works with Symbio FCell, creator of the first hydrogen range extender. This technology can be used to convert any electric vehicle into an electric/hydrogen hybrid, encouraging rapid adoption of this technology without needing to wait for the launch of new, dedicated models. Michelin’s IMECA subsidiary is working with Symbio FCell on the industrialisation of this technology. These efforts were helped in 2016 when green mobility company Engie took a minority share in Symbio, bringing with it its expertise in the carbon-free production of hydrogen and in distribution infrastructures.

Beyond its own research and that of Symbio, Michelin demonstrates its commitment to hydrogen fuel cell technology through its membership of the Hydrogen Europe FCHJU, which groups at European level all industries, research and national associations. Michelin additionally works with several French associations. It has also given its full support to the ‘Zero Emission Valley’ project in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France. The region seeks to become a “spearhead” of hydrogen mobility in Europe and aims, through the project, to boost awareness and use of hydrogen mobility. The plan is to deploy 20 hydrogen stations and a fleet of 1,000 vehicles in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes between now and 2020.

Last but not least, Michelin is a partner of Swiss firm Green GT, which produces the world’s only electric hydrogen racing vehicle. By putting the hydrogen fuel cell up against the extreme conditions encountered in endurance races, Michelin anticipates it will be in a position to offer future customers every guarantee of safety and performance.

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