Air Liquide SA is expanding its business building filling stations for hydrogen-powered cars as it predicts growing demand for the vehicles that emit only water by using fuel cells to generate electricity.
The company has built more than 60 hydrogen filling stations worldwide and agreed in September with partners including Linde AG to expand Germany’s network of 15 hydrogen filling stations to 100 by 2017 and 400 by 2023.
“In territories like Germany or France, you need about 1,000 stations” for full coverage, Pierre-Etienne Franc, head of the Advanced Business and Technologies unit, said in an interview at the French gas maker’s research center near Grenoble. “It takes about 10 billion euros ($13.7 billion) to build a decent fuel-cell infrastructure in Europe.”
Fuel-cell cars may represent “tens of thousands” of sales for the French market by 2025, especially if the cost of gasoline rises, Franck Pichot, Hyundai’s product marketing director for the country, said as he handed the keys of the first two hydrogen-powered cars registered in France to the Air Liquide executive.
“In the long term, whether it’s five, 10 or 20 years, we’ll have to move to fuel cells, or let the planet burn,” Franc said. “If we want to de-carbonate transports, we won’t have the choice because there won’t be enough bio-fuels, batteries don’t provide enough autonomy, and hybrids don’t solve the problem.”
Countries from Germany to Japan and the U.S. have begun initiatives to promote the construction of hydrogen filling stations, with unit costs of a bit more than 1 million euros, which can be cut to 800,000 euros, according to Air Liquide’s Franc.
Fuel-cell cars “will necessarily be high-end vehicles,” even as lower maintenance needs than gasoline-powered cars and rising CO2 taxes will reduce total cost of ownership, Hyundai’s Pichot said. “When gasoline hits 2 or 2.5 euros a liter, these solutions will be even more legitimate.” For gas makers such as Air Liquide, which had 1.9 billion euros in hydrogen sales in 2012, mostly to refineries and petrochemicals makers, the stakes are high.