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Often presented as the global leader in fuel-cell batteries even though that claim cannot be verified, Canadian company Ballard is undoubtedly one of the pioneers of this technology. Originally created in 1979 to develop lithium-ion batteries, the company converted to hydrogen as early as 1983. Its past has given Ballard quite a bit more experience than its competitors. Ballard produces fuel-cell batteries that are used in hydrogen-powered buses, cars, trams, forklifts and even drones.
Currently, more than 760 buses equipped with Ballard technologies have been sold around the world, for a total of 20 million kilometres travelled. For example, hydrogenpowered buses from Belgian manufacturer Van Hool use fuel cells made by the Canadian firm, and the buses are used in London (UK), Pau (France), Aberdeen (Scotland), and Cologne (Germany). Very present in the gigantic Chinese market, Ballard also supplies batteries for the buses that travel between Foshan and Yunfu, but also for more than 500 lorries in Shanghai and for the first hydrogen-powered tramway in the world, developed by Chinese manufacturer CRRC.
Unlike many newcomers to the hydrogen market, Ballard is not in the red, with profits of $22.6 million in 2019. Most analysts recommend purchasing shares even though the price has already gone up significantly this year, with a more than 90% increase since 1 January.
Known for its diesel engines, US firm Cummins acquired Canadian company Hydrogenics (which specialises in electrolysers and fuel cells) in 2019 for $290 million. In 2020, Cummins also increased its stake in Loop Energy, a Canadian manufacturer of fuel cells designed for lorries and buses.
In February 2020, the French automotive supplier announced that it had won the bid to supply Hyundai with 10,000 hydrogen tanks. These will be used to equip the 1,600 lorries that Hyundai will deliver to Switzerland by 2025.
A competitor of Air Liquide and Air Products, the German giant has produced hydrogen since 1910, primarily to supply the chemical, metallurgical and petrochemical industries. Linde also produces charging stations for fuel-cell vehicles.
Leading tyre company Michelin announced in November 2019 that it was partnering with Faurecia to create Symbio. This co-enterprise hopes to develop, produce and commercialise fuel cells for both light vehicles and heavy goods lorries. The ambitious French duo hopes to gain 25% of the global market and generate approximately €1.5 billion in revenue in 2030.
Created in 2008 and publicly listed since 2014, McPhy Energy is one of France’s hydrogen pioneers. Initially focused on gas storage systems, the company diversified to include electrolysers (machines that can produce hydrogen), by acquiring Italian firm Piel in 2013, as well as hydrogen fuelling stations for vehicles.
McPhy installed a 2-megawatt (MW) electrolyser in Laage, Germany. Inaugurated in June 2020 and powered by renewable energy, this electrolyser can produce 300 tonnes of hydrogen per year without generating any CO2 emissions. The hydrogen will be used to supply electricity and heat to the headquarters of the company Apex Energy and to a shopping area.
But McPhy is thinking even bigger, hoping to build 20 MW or even 100 MW electrolysers that have a higher capacity and can therefore reduce the costs of producing green hydrogen. In January 2020, chemical company Nouryon (formerly AkzoNobel) and gas firm Gasunie ordered a 20 MW hydrogen production platform from McPhy. This will be the largest of its kind in Europe and will be used in a factory in the Netherlands. Moreover, the two Dutch partners are already considering expanding the production power to 60 MW.
This is certainly a big order for McPhy, which continues to sign new contracts. On 30 July 2020 for example, the company announced that it will develop hydrogen infrastructure for the city of Dijon, France. Buses and refuse lorries will soon be hydrogen-powered. A few days later, on 3 August, a non-disclosed client purchased two McPhy hydrogen fuelling stations and a 1 MW electrolyser.
Certainly enough business to attract investors. Since the start of the year, McPhy's share price has increased nearly 490%. “McPhy is one of the best-positioned companies on the market to benefit from the hydrogen paradigm shift,” said Xavier Regnard, analyst at Bryan, Garnier & Co. “The company can also count on support from energy giant EDF, which became its primary shareholder in 2018.”
As Tesla once did, US start-up Nikola wants to develop its own network of hydrogen stations to support sales of its fuel-cell lorries. The plan is an ambitious one: Nikola plans to build 700 filling stations in the United States and Canada by 2028, as well as about 50 in Europe. To achieve this, the start-up ordered 85 electrolysers from Norwegian company Nel Hydrogen in June 2020. Together, these machines will be able to produce 40,000 kilogrammes of hydrogen per year, given that, currently, a 40-tonne lorry uses between 9 and 10 kg of hydrogen to travel 100 kilometres. Currently, more than 3,500 Nel electrolysers are used around the world. The company also sells storage systems and vehicle charging stations. On 10 June 2019, a Nel filling station in Sandvika, near Oslo, exploded due to faulty assembly of a storage tank.
The incident, which resulted in no casualties, caused the share price to drop 20% on the Oslo exchange and forced the company to ask its clients to close their filling stations during the investigations, particularly in Germany and the United States.
But that unfortunate period is now in the past. Driven by massive prohydrogen government programmes, Nel’s share price has skyrocketed nearly 110% since the start of the year. “Several European companies such as Nel Hydrogen, McPhy Energy and ITM Power are in the race to be the leader of the electrolyser market,” said Xavier Regnard, analyst for the bank Bryan, Garnier & Co. “But for now, it’s hard to say who will win."
Note to our readers: The publication of this profile in Swissquote Magazine (No. 4, September) predates the fraud scandal currently affecting Nikola.
American engineer Nikola Tesla, who invented the alternating current and died in 1943, certainly could never have imagined that he would become a market favourite more than 70 years after his death. But now his name describes a famous brand of battery-powered electric cars. His first name, Nikola, is also quite popular on Wall Street these days.
Created only six years ago, US start-up Nikola Corporation develops hydrogen-powered electric lorries. It went public on 4 June via its merger with VectolQ, which has been on the NASDAQ since 2018. It was a stunning debut. Five days after the IPO, on 9 June Nikola’s capitalisation exceeded 34 billion, which was more than Ford's capitalisation (30 billion), before falling to 13 billion currently.
This valuation is even more impressive considering that the company has never sold a single lorry. Nikola is garnering keen interest because it produces hydrogen-powered vehicles and many observers think it will be the future Tesla. However, the Phoenix-based start-up has adopted a strategy that is very different from its prestigious competitor.
Whereas Tesla and its ebullient CEO Elon Musk have always taken pride in doing everything themselves, Nikola works with many partnerships. For the fuel cells that will power its vehicles, Nikola’s supplier is German group Bosch, which has been a stakeholder in Nikola since 2019. For electrolysers, which produce the hydrogen that will be supplied to filling stations, the start-up announced on 3 June that it had placed an order with Norwegian group NEL.
And for the body of its lorries, Nikola has partnered with Italian holding company CNH, which is both a stakeholder in Nikola and the owner of the brand Iveco.
Another notable difference is that Nikola isn't exclusive. While the start-up is primarily focused on hydrogen, it also develops batterypowered electric models. The Nikola Tre, which is actually a re-branded Iveco lorry, will run on batteries, while the company’s two other articulated lorries (Nikola One and Nikola Two) will be hydrogen-powered.
The start-up confirmed that it already has 14,000 pre-orders for its hydrogen lorries – equating to approximately $10 billion in revenue. US beer giant Anheuser-Busch has ordered 800 of them. But these models won't be available until 2023. Nikola’s catalogue also includes the Badger, a hydrogen-powered pickup. This could irritate Elon Musk, who also has a pickup in the works – the Cybertruck with a futuristic design – and an articulated lorry named "Semi", and both are battery-powered vehicles. In June, the Tesla CEO told his teams to accelerate the development of the Semi, which is expected to be available in 2021. But the competition doesn't come solely from Tesla: Toyota and Hyundai, two hydrogen pioneers, are ahead of the game.
The French automobile manufacturer has invested more than 200 million in hydrogen technology over the past four years. Now the results are in: in 2019, the company won its first order, selling 5,000 hydrogen storage tanks to a German manufacturer to power their buses.
Specialising in fuel cells, US company Plug Power is diversifying to control the entire hydrogen value chain. In June 2020, Plug Power announced it was acquiring two companies in the industry: United Hydrogen and Giner ELX. The first produces 6.4 tonnes of hydrogen per day and the second manufactures electrolysers. Plug Power's fuel cells power the forklifts for giants such as Carrefour, Walmart and Amazon.
The year 2019 will certainly be remembered as a turning point for fuel-cell specialist PowerCell. In May, the small Swedish company announced an agreement with German giant Bosch to develop polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel-cell batteries, which will be on the market no later than 2022. With this partnership, Bosch is entering the market for mobile fuel cells designed for lorries, buses and personal vehicles.
This is a very significant matter for the German supplier. In 2017, Bosch abandoned all work on developing battery cells for electric vehicles, due to its insurmountable lag behind the competition. To recover, the German company is betting on hydrogen – a turning point marked by the acquisition of an 11.3% stake in PowerCell in 2019.
For PowerCell, which has never turned a profit since it was founded, now is the perfect occasion to increase its volume. Thus far, the Swedish company has only supplied its technology for use in prototypes of cars and lorries. But Bosch is targeting the mass market. “Commercialising technology is one of our strengths. We are now going to take on this task with determination and develop this market,” said Stefan Hartung, member of the Bosch board of management, in a statement. According to estimates from Bosch, up to 20% of all electric vehicles around the world will be powered by fuel cells by 2030, which could mean potentially several billion euros in revenue.
“With the combined weight of its clout and expertise, Bosch will provide our fuel-cell technology with the chance to gain a foothold in the automotive market,” said Per Wassén, CEO of PowerCell, in a statement. “We couldn’t imagine a better partner than Bosch for this.” Most analysts recommend holding shares of PowerCell, which has already increased more than 60% since the start of 2020.
Postponed due to the pandemic, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games would have been quite the event to showcase Toyota's hydrogen technology. As the official partner of the event, the Japanese group provided the organisers with 500 Mirais – its fuel-cell car – to transport athletes. It was also supplying 100 hydrogen Sora buses, which have been on the market since 2018, to transport spectators around Tokyo.
Toyota has been a believer in hydrogen for a long time. While all the global manufacturers were focused on battery-powered electric cars, the Japanese company still does not have any lithium-ion powered models in its catalogue. Instead, the company prefers to develop hybrid models (petrol engine with an electric motor and supplemental batteries) and focus on hydrogen. In 2014, Toyota launched its Mirai (meaning "future" in Japanese). This was one of the first mass-produced fuel-cell vehicles sold in the world (along with the Honda Clarity and the Hyundai iX35). Six years later, only 10,000 Mirais have been sold. Comparatively, Tesla sold 367,500 vehicles in 2019 alone. But despite the low sales, Toyota isn't giving up.
During the 2019 Tokyo Motor Show, the Japanese giant unveiled the Mirai 2, which will be available on the market by late 2020 in Japan and from 2021 in Europe. The group is currently increasing its production capacities to be able to produce 30,000 models per year after 2020, which is 10 times more than it produces now. Another model is also expected under Toyota's Nexus brand, as well as a large goods vehicle.
Toyota can promote this hydrogen- powered range during the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. For the event, the Japanese group will provide organisers with 3,000 hydrogen cars and 1,200 hydrogen buses. “The idea is to show that hydrogen can be a part of everyday life, and people will remember that from the Olympics,” explained Yasunobu Seki, head of Toyota's Olympic projects department, a few months ago.
In 2020, the diesel engine manufacturer inaugurated the world’s largest fuel cell production site in Shandong, with a capacity of 20,000 units per year. A vast majority of the production will be used to equip buses.