Michelin builds plant in Europe

Unter the Michelin name, most people are primarily familiar with products that are round and black, they enable cars to roll. What is less common is that the company also deals with drive technology. For example, fuel cells from the French tire manufacturer have been supplying a version of the Renault Kangoo with electricity since October 2019.They produce it from hydrogen and oxygen from the air in the tank; the only exhaust gas is water.

Lukas Weber

Editor in the “Technology and Engine” section.

“Michelin has been working on fuel cell technology for over 15 years,” said Anish Taneja, President of Michelin Northern Europe. The fourth generation is currently being developed. The Group’s fuel cells should be available in large quantities in a few years. To this end, the joint venture Symbio was founded with the automotive supplier Faurecia, and this year it will start building one of the largest factories in Europe for fuel cells near Lyon. In four years, 20,000 fuel cell systems are to be produced there annually, by the end of the decade it should be more than 200,000.

“The aim is to achieve a market share of twelve percent and a turnover of 1.5 billion euros by 2030,” says Taneja. While others are hesitant – Mercedes has discontinued its hydrogen model – Michelin is relying entirely on fuel cells. The company bases its optimism on two developments in particular: On the one hand, the hydrogen economy is an important building block on the road to climate neutrality, and the EU’s efforts to promote this path are correspondingly energetic. On the other hand, the fuel cell is the heart of the hydrogen car, but its high cost is – in addition to the lack of filling stations – the main reason for the niche existence of the few models on offer. A change is obviously in sight here, because in large factories the cell should be able to be produced considerably cheaper than before due to economies of scale and technical developments. “In 2030, the manufacturing costs will only be a tenth of today’s,” Taneja expects.

The idea is not new

That would be an important step towards the hydrogen car. Even if production in the new factory does not start until 2023, customer contracts have already been signed. Symbio is currently offering three fuel cell systems with all the necessary components from the pilot factory in Vénissieux; a small one with 7 to 40 kW output for use in light commercial vehicles, a medium one with 40 to 80 kW in larger vans, SUVs or vans and a large one with 80 to 500 kW for smaller trucks.

The idea of ​​a hydrogen economy – the light element then serves as a clean energy carrier not only for traffic – is not new, production by means of electrolysis has also been around for more than a century. The whole thing only becomes environmentally friendly without carbon dioxide if electricity from renewable energies is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The idea is to use electrical energy, for example from wind power, which is currently not being used, or to produce the hydrogen using solar power in the desert. Michelin is relying on the EU’s strategy of technology leadership and production of 10 million tons by 2030.

And what speaks against battery-electric drives from Taneja’s point of view? Nothing, he says, but the raw materials for the batteries and the charging stations are missing, and huge amounts of electricity have to be kept constantly by strong networks. The future of transport belongs to a mix of different technologies, Michelin relies on competition. Hydrogen, which is filled up like liquid gas, has its advantages in connection with the fuel cell on long-haul routes, in regular transport with its own filling station and also in trucks, which can probably not be operated with batteries in the long term. And where does all the green electricity come from, which is not only supposed to replace coal and nuclear energy, but also to stimulate traffic? Taneja believes that politicians are required to invest in the expansion of renewables. “In the long term, we want to run with 100 percent green electricity,” he says.


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