French auto suppliers Fauecia SA and Michelin are working together to accelerate automotive fuel cell technology.
The two companies signed a memorandum of understanding to create a joint venture in Symbio, previously a subsidiary of Michelin, according to a Michelin spokesman. The company will develop, produce and market hydrogen fuel cells for light and utility vehicles and trucks, as well as for other applications.
Fabio Ferrari, Symbio founder and CEO, started the company about 10 years ago with a goal for commercializing fuel cell technology after working with the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) to find the right market for the product, he said.
"They have been developing fuel cell systems for about 30 years now. They're really good at the technology, and they were looking for ways to put it into the market," Ferrari said. "I worked with them for about one year to define where are the right market segments to start, and at the end of the study, I decided to create the company."
The company worked alongside Michelin for several years before Michelin came in as a shareholder in 2014.
With Michelin's concurrent sustainable mobility research, the two companies found a stride working together, especially on projects aimed at boosting the flexibility of electric vehicles, he said.
Ferrari said Michelin bought Symbio in February, introducing it as a subsidiary of the group. The company will be owned equally by Faurecia and Michelin through the JV.
Faurecia, a French automotive systems supplier, found common ground with Michelin in hydrogen as a solution for powering vehicles, according to Eric Fohlen-Weill, head of corporate communications for Faurecia.
"Both companies believe that hydrogen will be complementary to battery electric vehicles," Fohlen-Weill said.
While battery electric vehicles are useful for various applications, the system doesn't adapt well for trucks as an example, he said. Trucks see regular, intense use for long distances, and can't be left charging for 2-3 hours.
"Those two key elements are already available with hydrogen solutions," Fohlen-Weill said. "You can have more than 1,000 kilometers of autonomy with a hydrogen solution, and the refueling time is three to five minutes. So hydrogen is a suitable solution for light commercial vehicles and delivery vehicles."
Hydrogen is additionally useful because even after a day full of making deliveries, "at the end of the tailpipe, it's only water. It's a zero-emission solution," Fohlen-Weill said.
A hydrogen system uses more simplified architecture and reduces price, Ferrari said. A fuel cell typically uses a polymer film at its center, while fuel cell systems rely on plastics and other lightweight materials for housings, cables and cooling systems.
"It's four times smaller and five times lighter if you compare a battery to fuel cells," he said.
One drawback is a lack of widespread refueling stations, but as the system becomes more popular, those will be easier to sustain, Ferrari said. Because of their regular routes, light commercial vehicles such as fleet vehicles can make a good choice for hydrogen systems.
"The good thing is that you're not going to holiday with this vehicle, so they come back to the parking lot every night, so it's easy to put in the right position, and to optimize the business model for this working condition," Ferrari said.
"As this common vision appears, we say, the markets need to receive a strong signal from OEMs," he said. "If two worldwide leading companies, manufacturers, say they both invest and believe in fuel cell technology, it will give a very good, positive signal to the rest, and to the market."
Fohlen-Weill said fuel cells are a mid- to long-term solution for the automotive industry, but the time to develop the technology is more immediate as manufacturers are planning future vehicles.
"We believe that competitive fuel cell systems will be on order around 2025, so companies like Symbio need to be a backbone to strong shareholders who are able to finance those kinds of activities until it is happening," he said. "With companies like Faurecia and Michelin, it's possible. We really believe in this energy vector."
Faurecia will bring the knowledge and work it's done with the CEA to develop a new generation of hydrogen tech, and Michelin will provide all the activities that Symbio has done, Fohlen-Weill said.
Michelin also will provide research and development and production activities, according to the company spokesman.
Both companies will help the developing Symbio gain access to the right people to spur reach into the automotive market who will be able to sell the solution as a viable option, Ferrari said.
"Of course we will be able to take some competencies from Michelin and Faurecia to more rapidly grow in the right direction," Ferrari said.
Symbio already has several staff members at the sales and technical level coming from Michelin, and Ferrari hopes to have some employees joining from Faurecia as well once the final agreement is signed, he said.
Ferrari is working on the next steps for Symbio's process through the JV, which includes planning for the new build of the company "to be compatible with the objectives I have now in terms of market and production," he said. Symbio has a capacity to produce about 1,000 fuel cell systems per year and plans to scale up to producing more than 100,000 per year.
"It's a huge step for us," Ferrari said. "The market is forecasting for that, so we have to go that direction for sure."
Growth of that magnitude means a requirement for expansion of the company's facilities, starting with its production facility near Lyon, France, Ferrari said. As demand increases, there could be continued development near that facility. Symbio has its headquarters and R&D at its location in Montagny, France.
Symbio, which has 120 employees, also will need to bring on a larger staff, though the goal total is still being established, he said.
"I think we will at least double the size of the company in the next year, because we have large objectives," he said. "It all depends on how we see the growth and how we want to invest, at what pace we want to invest, to be exact." Details about investment surrounding the JV were not disclosed.
His objective is to have some results for the structure of the JV going forward by June, but it could reach into September. The new company still needs to undergo scrutiny through antitrust regulations. With that goal in mind, Ferrari would like to have the first phase of production with the new plant underway by the end of next year.
"The market is really starting now," Ferrari said. "We really want to be ready for this market, so we really have to accelerate. It's a huge exercise to grow like that in a short time frame, but it's mandatory. It's a good goal to set."