No noise, no emissions, no wearing parts: Hydrogen fuel cells are among the hot candidates for tomorrow's mobility. The technology that inspired the visionary and writer Jules Verne as early as the 19th century is now closer than ever to being used in series production.
The traffic revolution comes quietly and cleanly: in a mini power plant under the bonnet, hydrogen reacts silently with oxygen on wafer-thin membranes. The result is energy and - pure water. Fuel cells are the name of the filigree energy converters stacked in so-called "stacks" with the potential to change mobility profoundly.
Drives like an electric car, quiet like an electric car, is an electric car - only a drive battery is not on board. Instead, an exhaust pipe at the rear discreetly indicates the working principle of the test vehicle. There is no doubt that a fuel cell produces the energy for the electric motor. Nothing comes out of the tailpipe but water vapour, the best drinking water quality. It could hardly be more environmentally friendly. Filling up the hydrogen for the fuel cell is almost as fast as with a petrol or diesel engine and the range can also keep up with internal combustion engines.
A lot of advantages over the battery car, but it is not that simple. A nationwide hydrogen infrastructure is not yet in place in Europe and the construction of a filling station network is expensive. Above all, electricity from renewable sources must be used for the energy-intensive production of hydrogen so that the environmental advantages of hydrogen technology are maintained. The technology itself also currently costs more than battery systems. The main area of application for fuel cell vehicles is therefore primarily in freight transport on road and rail, where they can exploit their range advantage. The advantage of hydrogen trucks: the transporters do not have to lug around batteries weighing tons, which come at the expense of payload, and the high efficiency of 60 percent beats any diesel engine.
Michelin involved with joint venture
All in all, the potential of hydrogen technology is enormous - which is why Michelin, with its subsidiary Symbio Fcell, has been one of the players in the development of fuel cell systems since 2014. In November 2019, the Group put its commitment on an even broader footing and agreed with automotive supplier Faurecia to set up the joint venture SYMBIO, A FAURECIA MICHELIN HYDROGEN COMPANY. The joint venture combines all activities of the partners on hydrogen fuel cells - and they are extremely diverse: The creative joint venture has already developed the compact Kangoo Z.E. Hydrogen into a fuel cell city delivery van ready for series production in cooperation with Renault. Vans and trucks are also on the road as test vehicles with the environmentally friendly drive technology. Other projects signal the almost endless spectrum that hydrogen can cover: SYMBIO fuel cell technology is also used in construction machinery and even in excursion boats.
Water is the coal of the future. Tomorrow's energy is water that has been decomposed by electric current. The elements of water thus decomposed, hydrogen and oxygen, will secure the earth's energy supply for the foreseeable future.
Even though it is considered a technology of the future, the principle of the fuel cell dates back to the infancy of electricity research. In 1838, the chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein dipped two platinum wires in sulphuric acid, surrounded them with hydrogen and oxygen and discovered a voltage between them. "Cold combustion" is the name of this electrochemical reaction that produces water, electricity and heat. Especially in the early days, science expected a lot from the invention. None other than Jules Verne predicted in 1875: "Water is the coal of the future. Tomorrow's energy is water that has been broken down by electric current. The elements of water thus decomposed, hydrogen and oxygen, will secure the earth's energy supply for the unforeseeable time."
But it was not until the 1950s that interest in the fuel cell grew again, initially through the search for a powerful and quiet energy source for submarines. This made the vision of Jules Verne, the creator of Captain Nemo and the famous submarine Nautilus, a bit of a reality. From the 1990s onwards, research was given new impetus by various oil crises and the need to develop new and clean energy sources.
Vision on the verge of reality
In view of ever stricter emission regulations, Jules Verne's vision is more relevant today than ever before. More and more manufacturers, supported by partners like SYMBIO, are pushing the development of fuel cell trucks. According to forecasts, more than 2.3 million hydrogen-powered cars and trucks are expected to be on the road in 2030. The start of mass production will also bring down the cost of the technology.