Making H2 Fuel Cells Happen

Fuel-cell industry veteran Rob Del Core outlines Symbio’s progress in this increasingly viable technology.

Symbio’s recently unveiled flat hydrogen storage system could be a game-changer in fuel-cell vehicle packaging. (Symbio)

Over a 23-year career Rob Del Core has led more than 20 programs related to zero-emissions vehicles and subsystems, most of them related to developing hydrogen fuel-cell power, at companies including Hyzon Motors, Hydrogenics USA (Cummins), and Ricardo. Now general manager at Symbio, the Faurecia-Michelin joint venture aimed at fuel-cell stack and systems development, Del Core’s work continues amid accelerating global activities in H2FC power. He was interviewed recently by Editor-in-chief Lindsay Brooke. Highlights from that conversation follow.

Rob Del Core (Symbio)

There seems to be a growing acknowledgement of the limitations of huge lithium batteries for large commercial vehicles and their duty cycles, and that hydrogen fuel cells are a better candidate to augment and eventually replace diesels.

Where we see the value for customers is in TCO, total cost of ownership, and being able to support fleet operations. Commercial vehicles are high-utilization, operating in very demanding environments on long shifts. And consuming a lot of hydrogen is important for the hydrogen-generation side because producers of hydrogen need that committed demand to get cost down and make the TCO work.

Symbio’s broad portfolio of fuel-cell ratings, from 40kW to 300kW, fits a lot of use cases in Class 5-8 trucks. But is the prospect of light-duty applications and market still alive?

Light duty is absolutely a key part of our market. We call our system the fuel-cell ‘Stack Pack’ — it’s a fully integrated system. It’s based on the core technology we’ve been developing and validating in this space with customers such as Stellantis [which recently became a Symbio shareholder]. It can be scaled for larger power applications where needed—from light-duty pass car up to heavy-duty commercial. We’re looking at all classes of mobility. We talk to customers in all segments to learn their needs and requirements.

How does a Symbio fuel cell stack compare with state-of-art diesel technology?

We’re very competitive with diesel, to the point where we have a funded project with the California Energy Commission to demonstrate, in 2024, a Class-8 truck that will showcase Symbio fuel cell technology. The goal is to demonstrate weight and performance parity with diesel, using the existing hydrogen fueling infrastructure. This is a road tractor that will weigh the same as a diesel tractor, which has a major impact on payload. By comparison, a battery presents challenges as to what the tractor can support. Symbio is the technical lead including integration; the chassis is a Freightliner, provided by Daimler Truck. Michelin, our other shareholder, is providing the low-rolling-resistance tires, as well as the telematics system for data collection.

Can you share the stack’s overall efficiency?

We’re well over 50 percent at the stack level. We’re talking about a system that can cover over 500 miles’ range on a single fill. The vehicle will have close to 80 kg of hydrogen storage capacity, using tank technology from our shareholder Faurecia.

Will the fuel-cell Freightliner use direct drive or a gearbox?

It will be a direct drive configuration.

What are the challenges still facing hydrogen fuel cells?

Proving out the durability, getting the tech out there, and earning customer acceptance. We see no technical hurdles. Building the fueling infrastructure is happening with California leading the way and big investments are being made.

How would you characterize supply-chain development for hydrogen fuel cell systems?

We see a lot of new players entering this market. Symbio is taking control of the core technologies to our business, such as the bipolar plate. We have a 50:50 JV with Schaeffler Group called Innoplate, a dedicated venture to produce bipolar plates for Symbio. It’s an example of how we’re taking a critical piece of fuel cell supply, integrating into our operations to be more vertical and to control our cost of development. There are other examples but that’s a key one. We’re always looking for partnerships in this space that can be complimentary and result in more forward motion.