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Hydrogen Powers Sustainable Transport Into the Future

Dr. Sae Soon Kim talked to cH2ange about the ix35 Fuel Cell (launched in 2013 by Hyundai and best known as the Tucson in the US), the advances in hydrogen technology, and the role for hydrogen as a sustainable fuel for the future. As Hyundai-Kia’s head of hydrogen fuel cell research, Dr. Kim has overseen the ix35’s journey from the company’s research department to the car showroom. He is currently working on the development of Hyundai’s second hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV), scheduled for launch in 2018.

“ Without massive infrastructure investment, BEVs will be best used with slow chargers” — Dr. Sae Soon Kim

How have things changed since you started working with hydrogen FCEVs?

I started fuel cell development in 2003. At that time we didn’t even have our own stack [Editor’s note: an individual fuel cell unit is made up of several unitary cells, placed in series to produce the required voltage. The finished assembly of the cells is called the stack]. Another difficulty was that we needed extra nitrogen gas to start up and shut down the vehicle: starting up and shutting down just 3 times required 6 small nitrogen tanks.

Cold start up is the second area where I’ve seen major improvement. Water is the only emission from hydrogen FCEVs, which is great for the environment but a potential problem in very cold weather because the water must be removed from the fuel cell before it freezes, or it can damage the cell.

Our first cold start trial was at -10°C. The process took 15 minutes and required nitrogen. Today, it’s a totally different story. Nitrogen is no longer necessary, so you can cold start the car as many times as necessary, and it takes less than 3 seconds. To the driver this feels virtually instantaneous, much like an internal combustion engine (ICE), because our hybrid battery starts up even before the fuel cell system. And you can start at — 30 degree celcius within 30 seconds.

Lastly, fuel cell durability is another area where I’ve seen major advances. In our demonstration project in 2004, the average durability of a fuel cell across the entire industry was about 800 hours. This is low when you consider that 500 hours equates to about one year of driving. Today, we are able to provide a guarantee of 5,000 hours, which is equivalent to about 10 years of driving.

There is much debate in the media about the advantages and disadvantages of FCEVs compared to battery electric vehicles (BEVs). What are your views on this?

Hyundai also develops BEVs and we think it is a very useful technology that will coexist with FCEVs in the future because each technology has different benefits.

Let’s take driving range as an example. To increase the driving range of BEVs [Editor’s note: BEVs typically have a much lower driving range than FCEVs], we could simply add more batteries. However, a battery car with a 500km to 600km range would need a battery weighing around 500kg to 600kg. A fuel cell with the same driving range would be much lighter.

“We are likely to see convergence between the costs of FCEVs and conventional cars much sooner than many people realize”

Daimler has recently announced that there is a critical range of about 350km, over which an FCEV is more economical than a BEV, while the opposite is true below this level. However, I have done my own analysis and I think this tipping point is likely to be nearer to 200km if we factor in the cost reduction possibilities for FCEVs in the near future.

Another issue relating to range is charging time. A 50kW charger will charge a BEV with a 200km driving range in about 20 minutes [Editor’s note: depending on battery capacity]. Assuming it becomes possible to produce a BEV with a 600km range, then the charging time would be 1 hour with the same charger [Editor’s note: depending on battery capacity]. To reduce this time we could use 350kW chargers, which are seven times faster. The drawback here becomes apparent when we scale this up: let’s say that 3 cars are being charged at the same time, all with 350kW chargers, then that would require 1 megawatt of power. What about 3,000 cars charging at the same time? This would need 1 gigawatt, which is equivalent to the output of an entire nuclear power plant!

“I am very positive about hydrogen costs because renewable energy doesn’t have any limits. As long as the sun shines, renewable energy will be available.”

Without massive infrastructure investment, BEVs will be best used with slow chargers: for applications where there is no urgency and vehicles can be charged overnight. When a larger vehicle or a longer range is required, or for certain commercial uses, like taxis, then FCEVs are ideal.

I think the two technologies make a good combination. I don’t understand why some people want to go to the extreme of choosing one technology over the other.

Will it be costly to develop the hydrogen infrastructure? How would this compare to the reinforcement of the electric grid for BEVs?

There is no single figure that represents the cost of building a hydrogen station: building one costs 6 million dollars in Japan, but only 3 million in Korea and 1.5 million in Europe. This is due to different regulations in different countries as well as differences in capacity. What we need is the same regulations for hydrogen stations across the world.

Even now, I don’t think the cost of stations is so expensive that it presents a problem for society. And there is a massive potential to reduce these costs because stations will become cheaper when they are built in greater numbers.

Conversely, I think it will be very expensive to increase the electric capacity. Let’s go back to our figure of 1 megawatt to power 3 electric chargers. Upgrading the grid to facilitate this kind of demand would require major extension and reinforcement.

What about carbon emissions from hydrogen production?

It’s the same situation in terms of carbon emissions for BEVs and FCEVs. We need carbon-free electricity and hydrogen generation, using renewable sources. There is plenty of renewable energy in the world but it is not evenly distributed. For example, countries like Australia have massive amounts of renewable energy, while in Korea we have very little. Hydrogen produced from renewable sources in countries like Australia and could be exported in the form of liquid hydrogen.

Will the cost of an FCEV become closer to that of an average ICE car in the near future?

For the price of FCEVs to drop significantly we need to produce them in much greater quantities. FCEVs use some similar parts to ICE cars, but they also need many different components, for which we have to pay about 10 times as much because the amount produced is so low. As production increases, so will competition between suppliers and costs will automatically come down.

“It is very possible that households will want both types of vehicle: a BEV for short trips and an FCEV for longer journeys“

Assuming we increase production in the future, then I expect that FCEV prices will follow the same path as hybrid cars today, so about 10% to 15% more expensive than hybrid cars. However, there’s an important element that people often forget: we must consider the introduction of increasingly stringent regulations and penalties on conventional fuels. This will necessitate more investment in catalysts and exhaust systems, making ICE cars more expensive. When we take this into account, then we are likely to see convergence between the costs of FCEVs and conventional cars much sooner than many people realize.

What about running costs?

I am very positive about hydrogen costs because renewable energy doesn’t have any limits. As long as the sun shines, renewable energy will be available. Whereas oil has definite limits. The price of oil is variable and likely to be even more so in future as supplies dwindle. But we could have a stable supply of energy from solar power plants or wind farms, which could be used to make hydrogen, and this price would be much less likely to fluctuate compared to oil or other hydrocarbons.

What is your vision of the future in terms of the proportions of hydrogen and electric vehicles on our roads?

I think FCEVs will dominate the commercial sector, for delivery vehicles, taxi engines, buses and trucks, etc. Regarding the passenger sector, I think it is very possible that households will want both types of vehicle: a BEV for short trips and an FCEV for longer journeys. But it’s harder to make predictions about this sector, as ultimately it is the customer that will decide which they prefer. But I am confident there will be a place for both technologies in the future.