Michelin, Forvia and Stellantis inaugurated on Tuesday their "gigafactory" of fuel cells south of Lyon, which will run hydrogen-powered vans and buses. Their joint venture Symbio's plant aims to produce 15,000 hydrogen systems in 2024 and then rise to 50,000 per year by 2026, while sales of hydrogen vehicles have yet to take off. With 700 employees, in the industrial zone of Saint-Fons (Rhône), this plant called "SymphonHy" is the largest fuel cell factory in Europe, and already has about twenty customers.
The French government is betting heavily on hydrogen and is supporting this plant to the tune of €600 million, as part of a European subsidy plan for this technology, which is still not very competitive. At the end of 2021, Stellantis, Europe's leading commercial vehicle manufacturer, delivered the first vehicles equipped with hydrogen systems, assembled in Germany. An Opel van, for example, carries 4.4 kilograms of hydrogen for a range of 400 kilometers. Its price is still above 100,000 euros at the time of purchase, with a rental offer of 400 euros per month.
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Supply difficulties in anticipation
The manufacturer intends to lower this price with its new range of hydrogen-powered Peugeot, Opel and Citroën utility vehicles, which are to be assembled in Hordain (Nord). According to Forvia, by 2030, the hydrogen system will be cheaper than the electric battery, which could also face supply difficulties for certain materials such as cobalt. All that remains is to deploy charging stations and find hydrogen produced from carbon-free energies: by 2030, the French government must invest €7.2 billion to reach 600 kilotonnes of production per year.
Symbio also plans to open a gigafactory in California, to supply the U.S. commercial and truck market. Stellantis brands such as Ram plan to take advantage of this to switch their pickups to hydrogen from 2026-2027. A hydrogen fuel cell is made up of plates and membranes in which an electrochemical reaction takes place to produce electricity, heat and water.
It powers the electric motor of commercial vehicles or buses, with a range and charging time close to those of internal combustion vehicles. It therefore makes it possible to carry batteries that are much smaller than an electric vehicle, protecting its payload, and only emits water vapour to the exhaust. The Saint-Fons plant is to be supplied with hydrogen by the future electrolyser at the Pierre-Bénite dam on the Rhône. Via an underground pipeline, SymphonHy will receive 3 to 4 tonnes of hydrogen per day from 2025.