The Intertubes are on fire with the latest news about Michelin Group, which is diving into the hydrogen fuel cell business. Actually that is not new news. Michelin announced big plans for fuel cells last year. What’s new is the company’s home nation of France, which is firming up plans to launch itself like a rocket into the global green hydrogen race and presumably taking Michelin along for the ride, with an extra boost from the iconic Le Mans 24-hour auto race and a nuclear power angle, too.

Michelin Group Pivots To Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Fuel cell technology dates back to the 19th century, but commercial applications  were initially limited by cost and efficiency. That didn’t change much for a little while until the advent of new, nano-tailored advanced materials in the 21st century.

That’s just about when Michelin comes into the picture. Michelin is known mainly as a tire maker, but tire making has propelled it down the pathway of advanced materials research that leads to applications beyond tires, and fuel cells is one of them.

Michelin began focusing on fuel cells about 15 years ago, and things have been moving quickly over the past couple of years. The company ramped up its interest in the technology in 2019, when it formalized a venture called Symbio with the fuel cell firm Faurecia. In September 2020, Michelin announced a full fledged Hydrogen Mobility Strategy (for those of you new to the topic, fuel cells generate electricity by manipulating hydrogen and oxygen).

Can You Spot The Green Hydrogen In This Picture?

As outlined last September — when the news was new — the strategy pivots on the construction of a new industrial site for the Symbio venture, to be located near Lyon, from which Michelin will leverage its fuel cell business with other industry stakeholders.

Michelin’s hydrogen strategy cements it firmly in its home nation of France. Along with the new Symbio facility, one main area of focus is the “Zero Emission Valley” project in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, which aims to deploy 1,200 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for commercial use along with 20 hydrogen fuel stations. In support of the project, Michelin and France-based Engie invested in the fuel station firm Hympulsion along with public sector investors.

But wait, there’s more. To juice public interest in fuel cell technology, last June Michelin and Symbio joined the Mission H24 project, which is eyeballing the Automobile Club de l’Ouest‘s 2024 “24 Hours of Le Mans” 24-hour endurance race featuring hydrogen-electric racing cars under the banner of H24Racing, with the firm GreenGT handling the technology end of things.

Last year Michelin also reminded everyone that it has a membership stake in Hydrogen Europe and the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance, while touting hydrogen fuel cell technology as “one of the few technologies promoting industrial and energy sovereignty for Europe.”

“Hydrogen is a strategic growth area for Michelin,” the company added.  “A significant share of the group’s business will effectively be non-tyre related in ten years’ time.”

To all this, last Thursday Michelin Group announced that it has doubled down on its fuel cell commitment as part of a diversification strategy that also covers other materials-related areas, including 3-D printing, composite materials, and medical materials. The goal is to achieve 20-30% non-tire revenue by 2030.

“The Group also wants to become a global hydrogen mobility leader by supplying hydrogen fuel cells or components through its subsidiary Symbio,” Michelin emphasized.

The Michelin Picture Is Resolving Around Green Hydrogen

Hydrogen being hydrogen, there is the little matter of supply chain sustainability to clean up before Michelin can equate fuel cells with decarbonization. Almost all of the global hydrogen supply currently comes from natural gas.

To promote natural gas as a sustainable source of hydrogen, some gas stakeholders have begun talk up the idea of pairing hydrogen production with carbon capture systems. That solution sounded sketchy from the get-go, and last week BloombergNEF essentially called it a waste of time, so it’s a good thing Michelin does not appear to be pulling in that direction.

Instead, Michelin is leaning toward the explosive growth of the green hydrogen field, which mainly focuses on deploying electrolyzers to push hydrogen out of water by applying an electrical current.

The Zero Emission Valley project is one giveaway. In addition to the 1,200 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and 20 fuel stations, the project includes 15 electrolyzers. Engie articulated the green hydrogen goal back in May of 2019, when the project launched.

“ENGIE, which is certain that renewable hydrogen is the missing link along the path towards a decarbonised energy system, has taken up a position at the forefront of the energy revolution to speed up the emergence of a decentralised, decarbonised and digitised system in which renewable energies will play a key role,” explained Franck Bruel, the company’s deputy CEO.

Then there’s the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance. The organization emphatically includes “low carbon” hydrogen in its mission, which could include natural gas plus carbon capture, as well as biogas. However, when the organization sketched out its plan last November, the emphasis was on a near-term goal of 6 gigawatts or more of renewable hydrogen electrolyzer capacity in the EU by 2024, toward a 2030 goal of  40 gigawatts.

France Dives Into Green Hydrogen Pool

To confuse matters even more, most people include nuclear energy resources under the “clean” hydrogen tag. Last fall, for example, France added more fuel to the hydrogen fire when it launched a €7 billion hydrogen investment plan, which SP Global among others has characterized as “green or carbon-free hydrogen” from non-fossil sources.

Green or clean, the alternative hydrogen field is getting crowded already. Last week CleanTechnica took note of a splashy new “clean hydrogen”  fund called FiveT, featuring a mashup of the oil and gas services company Baker Hughes and the fuel cell firm Plug Power among others. FiveT’s press materials kept insisting on “clean” without specifying non-fossil, but in an email to CleanTechnica the firm cleared things up.

“On the production side, our focus is clearly on electrolysis projects, using renewable energy sources, and, in some countries, the complement use of nuclear to support low carbon H2 production. We are not targeting CCS projects as the fund’s catalyst role is less needed for these projects to develop,” FiveT explained.

Clean Hydrogen Breathes New Life Into Nuclear Energy

That thing about nuclear energy is not such great news for sustainable hydrogen fans who prefer keep the green spotlight on renewable energy. However, nuclear fans are circling around the idea, and France is one of those nuclear-friendly countries where that opportunity may lie.

Part of France’s new €7 billion hydrogen plan (called FRH2 for  Federation de Recherche Hydrogène), involves putting nuclear power plants to work during periods of under-use, to generate electricity for electrolyzer systems. That doesn’t necessarily mean building whole new fleets of nuclear power plants all around the countryside, but nuclear energy fans are already getting more than a little excited about the prospect of hydrogen-fueled growth in their industry.

The idea has also caught on here in the US, where the Energy Department is pitching carbon-free hydrogen production as a life extender for existing nuclear facilities, while work continues on next-generation nuclear technology.

On the other hand, what’s sauce for France may not be sauce for the US, where among other renewable resources there are fabulously long coastlines brimming with as-yet untapped offshore wind power.

Either way, non-fossil hydrogen and fuel cell activity  in the US are both picking up steam. Last year alone the Energy Department also launched a new $64 million round of R&D funding for zero carbon hydrogen with a focus on bringing down the cost of electrolyzers, along with $100 million for a new fuel cell truck initiative and a new agreement with the Netherlands that sounds awfully like a mashup of offshore wind and renewable hydrogen.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Courtesy of Michelin Group.



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